Nationals' LaRoche returns with no hard feelings
By KYLE HIGHTOWER
VIERA, Fla. (AP) There was a lot of relief behind the smile that Adam LaRoche wore when he walked into the Nationals' spring training facility Friday.
It wasn't too long ago, after all, that he wasn't sure if he'd even be back in this clubhouse.
Following one of the most productive seasons of his career in 2012 which included Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards, the Nationals' first basemen entered an uncertain offseason as he trudged through negotiated with the team for a new deal.
He wanted a three-year contract, but the Nationals were set on just two.
"There was a month or so there that it didn't look good," LaRoche recalled. "But at the end of year I didn't think nothing of it. As a matter of fact I left all my stuff in D.C. I just assumed we would work something out."
It wouldn't be quite as simple.
LaRoche turned down a $13.3 million deal in November, leaving the team to contemplate going instead with utility man Michael Morse.
But thanks to some late concessions on LaRoche's part, and some lobbying by manager Davey Johnson, a two-year $24 million deal was worked out. It's guaranteed the Nationals will have back their entire starting infield from 2012, and help a team unfamiliar with success maintain one of its biggest leaders.
"I don't know that there's anymore that he could have done," LaRoche said of Johnson's intervention on his behalf. "He went to the top in this organization and made a push for me to come back, and did everything he could. He continued to be persistent with it all winter. And I'm sure that helped out."
As indefinite as his future once seemed, the 33-year-old veteran said he arrived in Florida with it behind him.
"I talked to (general manager Mike Rizzo) quite a bit about it. No hard feelings," LaRoche said. "We got it done, and it's a great deal, I'm not complaining about that at all. If anything, I wanted to stay longer. We got the third-year option, so it's still a possibility."
With job security and another shot at a championship, the 10-year veteran isn't taking the opportunity lightly. Neither are his teammates, who say he's a big part of them having their sights set on a deeper playoff run.
"I think that's huge," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "The chemistry and attitudes of everyone in this clubhouse I think is why we had so much success last year. We all get along so well and actually enjoy coming to the field every day and working and getting better with the younger guys on the team."
Johnson said having LaRoche back on the roster was clearly the best move for his team. He not only gets back a bat in the middle of his order that produced a .271 batting average, 33 home runs and 100 RBI in 2012, but a capable defensive presence as well.
"He's like an insurance policy at first base," Johnson said. "I compare him to Keith Hernandez. He's cut out of the same mold. And he makes it look easy over there. It's very nice from an infielder's perspective, to know that if it ain't perfect, he's gonna make it right."
In the meantime, he said he's going to enjoy being in a clubhouse that isn't content with just shedding its former laughing-stock tag.
Unlike last season, when he went through the spring bothered by shoulder and foot issues, now he's healthy.
It's added up to new expectations for both himself and his teammates, LaRoche said.
"I haven't been here through the bad years, but I know guys that have been around here," he said. "It was an incredibly successful year last year and nobody saw it coming. I think guys think we had a chance, and we hung in there and thought were pretty good. But this year we don't. That's what comes along with winning. You get a taste of it.
"My first few years in Atlanta it was nothing to make the playoffs. We'd celebrate, but the goal was the World Series. That's where I see this team going."
Notes: Johnson said that newly-signed closer Rafael Soriano worked out a visa issue he was having in his native Dominican Republic and could report as early as Saturday...Johnson said that another new acquisition, RHP Dan Haren stood out, along with Jordan Zimmerman during pitchers' first official workout on Friday. He also said that C Wilson Ramos reported no soreness in his surgically-repaired knee during the same morning bullpen session. Johnson called it "the best news of the day."...Ryan Zimmerman said though he won't be ready for the Nationals' first spring training game on Feb. 23, he doesn't expect offseason shoulder surgery to prevent him from missing the season-opener in April. "I can tell right now I'm not strong as I need to be," he said. "I get tired quick...Once I get past there and progress and get strength to where I can let it go, then I'll be ready."
Follow Kyle Hightower at http://www.twitter.com/khightower.
Updated February 15, 2013