LaRoche still best bet at first base
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Pirates fans have strong opinions on first baseman Adam LaRoche, and they pretty much fall into these four categories: Bench him, trade him, demote him, release him.
LaRoche is a big strapping guy who looks like hitting should come easy to him. Much was expected when he came to the Pirates from Atlanta for the 2007 season in exchange for closer Mike Gonzalez and prospect Brent Lillibridge. He was touted as a middle-of-the-lineup presence who could take advantage of the friendly environment PNC Park presents left-handed batters.
After hitting 32 home runs for the Braves in 2006, a total of 40 seemed a reasonable expectation for his first season with the Pirates. When he hit 21, the disappointment was immense.
That disappointment has only grown this season as LaRoche stands in with six home runs and a .213 batting average. Instead of becoming a fan favorite, which might be expected of so personable a fellow, LaRoche has become a whipping boy. He's the guy on whom tired-of-losing fans vent their frustrations.
Some fans got their wish when LaRoche was on the bench yesterday as the Pirates defeated the Washington Nationals, 7-5, at PNC Park. As far as trading him, that's not going to happen any time soon. As far as releasing him or sending him to the minors, that's not going to happen.
While the laid-back LaRoche had the day off, fiery Doug Mientkiewicz started at first base and continued to provide a higher level of offense. He singled twice and walked in four at-bats.
Why not Mientkiewicz for a few days, if not longer?
Don't even present the scenario to Mientkiewicz
"Adam will get 99 percent of the at-bats at first base," he said. "I'm here when he needs a breather."
Manager John Russell is not ready to go in that direction, either. He said LaRoche would be back at first base when the Pirates play the Baltimore Orioles tonight.
Maybe Russell needs to rethink that position. Maybe LaRoche needs more than a day off. He's in the midst of a deep slump which came just at the time it was believed he was snapping out of his annual early doldrums. In his past 51 at-bats, dating to May 27, LaRoche has seven hits (.137), no homers and one RBI.
This plate famine came after a 24-day period in which LaRoche batted .310 with five home runs. It looked like he was ready to make major contributions to a surprisingly good Pirates offense. It didn't happen.
"He's pressing," said Russell. "He's a very proud player and he wants to be part of what's going on. That's taking him out of his approach, out of his game plan. We want to get him back on track. He's a big part of our offense."
It's not like Russell has a lot of options. Sure, Mientkiewicz could play for a few more days, and that might be the right decision in terms of helping LaRoche. But, at this stage of his career, Mientkiewicz is a strong clubhouse presence and a valuable utilityman but not an everyday player.
Other conceivable options within the team, Ryan Doumit and Xavier Nady, make no sense.
Moving Doumit is out of the question. He is just now establishing himself as the team's starting catcher and is on a monster offensive roll. He homered and drove in three runs yesterday. In the past three games, he's 9 for 11 with four homers and seven RBIs. Under no circumstances should he be disturbed. Besides, backup catcher Raul Chavez is not ready to play every day.
Nady did an adequate job playing first base in 2006 after coming over from the New York Mets. But his best position is right field. If he moves to first base, that puts Jason Michaels in the starting lineup and significantly weakens the bench, which has been a major asset. Like Mientkiewicz, Michaels is best used as a starter on an occasional basis, not every day.
Nor is prospect Steve Pearce the answer. Pearce is struggling almost as much at Indianapolis as LaRoche is with the Pirates. He was batting .255 with seven homers.
No, the answer at first base is simple. It's LaRoche.
If the Pirates are going to do anything this year, and by that we mean challenging for a .500 record, it will be with LaRoche at first base and hitting in the middle of the lineup. It is senseless to consider permanently benching him when he is coming to the part of the season where he traditionally hits best. His lifetime batting averages for July, August and September are .304, .308 and .298.
"Adam has done this before," said Mientkiewicz. "He's dug himself out of worse holes than this. We all feel as a team when he goes to the plate, good things will happen regardless of what his numbers say."
First Published June 13, 2008 12:00 am