He Gone! Bye, Bye Adam LaRoche

By now, through some form of sports media, everyone is familiar with the circumstances surrounding the retirement of Chicago White Sox first baseman/designated hitter Adam LaRoche.  For the past five years, LaRoche has had his son, Drake, tag along for the full length of the baseball season.  LaRoche intended for the same arrangement this year, the last of his two-year deal with the White Sox.  The little LaRoche effectively has been a “26th man” on both the Washington Nationals and the White Sox, who would participate in practices by shagging fly balls and during games by “cleaning players’ spikes.”  Last season he even had his own locker in the clubhouse, traveling with dad for 120 games.  At the beginning of this spring training, however, Sox Vice President Kenny Williams asked for this arrangement to be significantly tailed back, essentially a take it or leave it proposal for the veteran player.  Little LaRoche continued to show up every day to spring training, even after LaRoche the ballplayer went out with back spasms, thus infuriating Williams.  A confrontation ensued as LaRoche had obviously balked at the proposal.  A few days later, LaRoche announced his decision to retire.  The media has since jumped all over the story, ostensibly framing the issue around whether children should or shouldn’t be allowed in the clubhouse.  Yet by focusing on Drake LaRoche, the media is ignoring other factors in the case.  Although all the details are still a little unclear, one thing is certain: Adam LaRoche is gone, which is what the White Sox organization wanted all along.

At the end of the 2015 season, the Sox front office concluded that Adam LaRoche, a left-handed power bat with a reputation for being a great teammate, was not what was advertised.  The first year of his $25 million deal was a disaster, with him hitting just .207 and driving in only 12 home runs and 44 RBIs.  After a 2015 campaign in which the White Sox won just 76 games, the Sox front office desperately wanted LaRoche gone, concluding that he and his $13 million for next season were not a fit.  This offseason, General Manager Rick Hahn openly tried to trade him, reportedly willing to eat up to $8 million of his salary.  There were a number of teams this offseason looking for left-handed hitting first basemen, including the Seattle Mariners, Colorado Rockies, Pittsburgh Pirates and, later on, the Milwaukee Brewers.  Unfortunately, through trade or free agency, each team filled their need, with the Mariners trading for Adam Lind, the Rockies signing Ben Paulsen, the Pirates signing John Jaso and the Brewers signing Chris Carter.  The free agents signed for no more than $4 million a season, just $1 million less than what LaRoche would have cost.  Although the Sox signaled their intentions to rid themselves of LaRoche by going so far as to absorb over 60% of the financial burden, anything more may not have made much financial sense at the time.  As Jim Margalus at South Side Sox explained back in December:

[$8 million is] as much as the Sox could think about paying for LaRoche’s removal before it stops making sense. He’s a left-handed bat and the only other guy with significant first base experience besides [Jose] Abreu, so the Sox are still a number of moves short of rendering him redundant.

As long as that’s the case, the Sox may as well try one more crack at getting something from LaRoche before discarding him. I’ve made the comparison before to Pat Burrell’s career in Tampa Bay. Like LaRoche, Burrell signed a two-year deal after life in the National League to become the primary DH for a team. It didn’t work for the Rays in 2009, and after an even worse start to his 2010, the Rays cut him in the middle of May.

The Sox are probably thinking along the same lines if they’re willing to pay $8 million to trade him right now. I’d guess that LaRoche opens the season in a reduced role — platoon DH at best, bench player at worst — and if he picks up where he left off, the Sox will explore life after LaRoche during the second half of May.

At that point, they’d owe him $9 million or thereabouts, so that’s why it doesn’t make a ton of sense to go above $8 million as long as he still fits on the roster. Maybe Hahn will acquire players that cover all of LaRoche’s skill set by the end of March, but flushing $5 million is something that can be done at any time.”

LaRoche indeed had a terrible, Pat Burrell-type season numbers-wise, yet other players have had such terrible starts to their White Sox careers (e.g. Adam Dunn) which raises the question: why was there an obvious push by the front office to rid themselves of LaRoche?  Looking past the statistics reveals that LaRoche was a selfish player, antithetical to the philosophy of the organization.  It’s one thing to be bad.  It’s quite another to be bad with an obvious me-first attitude.  Throughout the 2015 season, especially early on, there were consistent discussions on LaRoche’s part about playing time at first base, his natural position, creating a rift between LaRoche and White Sox star, Jose Abreu.  The organization decided to stand behind its star, who would get the vast majority of reps at first base, relegating LaRoche to designated hitter duties.  A life long National League player, LaRoche consistently complained about the unfamiliarity with the role and never feeling part of the games.  The former Gold Glover LaRoche obviously loathed the situation, especially as Abreu played below-average defense, and partially blamed his performance on the arrangement.  As for LaRoche’s performance in the batters box, he consistently kept pulling balls instead of going the other way in defensive shifts so apparent that it was obvious LaRoche was more concerned over his power numbers rather than sacrificing himself for the team and moving runners over.  It’s not surprising that at their first team meeting this spring training, selfish play like this was called out, with manager Robin Ventura emphasizing a team-first attitude.  Stories emerged that Ventura particularly singled out LaRoche, signalling that the manager would be unafraid to bench the expensive veteran.  More than likely, LaRoche was called out for his non-team play, with the expectation that he would spend spring training practicing going the other way in his at-bats.  During a batting practice session in the early part of spring training with Ventura pitching, LaRoche took a ball right up the middle, barely missing the manager.  Although the incident was played down as nothing more than something to laugh at, with LaRoche showing that he could at least go up the middle, LaRoche’s relationship to the team was precarious at best heading into the season.

These incidents lead one to the conclusion that all was not well in a divided Sox clubhouse last year, with LaRoche more than likely being at the center of it all.  By his sudden retirement, all signs point to the problem revolving much around LaRoche, his selfishness, and his relationship with his son.  Before he signed his two-year deal with the White Sox, there was a gentleman’s agreement between LaRoche and the White Sox, specifically Ventura and Hahn, that LaRoche’s son could have access to the clubhouse.  At the time, this wasn’t seen as a problem, especially with LaRoche’s reputation as a player and teammate.  But during a failed 2015 season, obvious factions revealed themselves in the clubhouse, with English-speaking players such as Chris Sale and Adam Eaton on LaRoche’s side, and Spanish-speaking players such as Abreu, Melky Cabrera and Jose Quintana on the other.  As Abreu has stated, last year the Sox “didn’t play as a team.”  The factions between English and Spanish speakers was so apparent, the Sox fired bench coach Mark Parent before the end of the season and hired Rick Renteria, now the only Spanish-speaking coach, to replace him.  Before Renteria’s arrival, Spanish-speaking players may have felt voiceless in an English dominated clubhouse and players like Abreu may have felt unable to raise any objections to the situation involving Drake LaRoche.  With Renteria on board, the LaRoche situation was finally voiced to upper management.  With rumors swirling that veteran newcomers Jimmy Rollins and Todd Frazier also voiced concerns, Kenny Williams and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf saw an opening to rid themselves of LaRoche.  Since Drake’s access to the clubhouse was not contractual, the arrangement could be reversed.  And figuring that LaRoche would walk away from the team rather than agree to a reneged agreement, or even one “tailed back,” Williams and Reinsdorf knew the team would be rid of a divisive, underperforming player, and, more importantly, the entire $13 million of salary owed for this year.  Worst case scenario?  LaRoche would agree to not keep Drake around as much, a team issue would be resolved, and LaRoche would be an expensive bench player until the middle of May.

Although there has been heated discussions in the Sox clubhouse since the news broke, it is obvious the factions are finally airing out their frustrations.  In the end, the players will do what Reinsdorf has supposedly directed them to do and play ball and “focus on the field.”  Kenny Williams will receive most, if not all, of the blowback and be the bad guy — a role, he admits, he doesn’t mind playing.  And although there has been talk of the MLBPA filing a grievance against the team, a non-contractual agreement is not much to stand on.  In the end, the White Sox organization brilliantly saw an opportunity and pounced.  Who knows, maybe all this publicity will finally get some fans in the seats.

Featured Image: Via great-info

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