Andy LaRoche’s future

A career .295/.382/.517 minor league hitter who ranked among Baseball America’s top 100 prospects each season from 2005 to 2008, Andy LaRoche was expected to be a franchise cornerstone for the Pittsburgh Pirates following his acquisition in the three-team Jason Bay/Manny Ramirez trade in July of 2008. The former Dodgers farmhand turned in a productive 2009 season for the Bucs, combining an average bat (.324 wOBA, 97 wRC+) with slick defense at third base (+12 Total Zone Runs, +5.1 UZR/150). The result was a 2.6 WAR campaign. Twenty-six entering the 2010 season, LaRoche was supposed to provide above-average D again, while perhaps hitting with greater authority at the plate.

Instead, he has been one of the worst everyday players in the majors. A walks and doubles machine in the minors, LaRoche isn’t working the count especially well (7.3 BB%) and he has an Isolated Power figure of .086. His timing against fastballs is off — according to Fangraphs’ Pitch Type Run Values, LaRoche has been -1.54 runs below average against heaters this season. Perhaps on a related note, he’s popping the ball up a whopping 22 percent of the time. That’s the highest rate among batters with 150+ plate appearances, and is about three times the big league average. LaRoche’s wOBA is .282, and his wRC+ is 72. His glove hasn’t rate well either, with a -7 TZ and a -13.9 UZR/150. Overall, LaRoche has been a half-win worse than a replacement-level player.

And now, his future role with the Pirates is in flux. Pedro Alvarez is manhandling Triple-A pitching (.285/.370/.549). The Vanderbilt star’s major league ETA is any day now, and Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington recently removed any doubt as to where Pedro will begin his career with the Bucs. Here’s what he told MLB.com’s Jenifer Langosch:

When Pedro shows us he is ready for promotion, he will step in at third base and be given the chance to show he is ready to become an everyday Major League third baseman. Andy has been and will continue to be an asset to our Major League club, but his at-bats will come in a part-time role as he becomes comfortable playing around the diamond

The question now becomes: where does LaRoche fit in? His bat just doesn’t measure up at positions down the defensive spectrum, like first base and the corner outfield spots. LaRoche’s rest-of-season ZiPS forecasts a .324 wOBA. His updated CHONE projection calls for about a .320 wOBA. Oliver is even less optimistic, with a .301 wOBA for the rest of 2010. Chances are, his offensive upside at this point is a league-average hitter. LaRoche would have to be a supernatural fielder at those positions to be worth playing on a regular basis. He has barely played any other spot on the diamond save for third, so we don’t have much to go on. But that doesn’t seem likely.

Despite the wild fluctuations, the 6-1, 215 pound LaRoche has been roughly average defensively at third. During the off-season, Dave Cameron wrote a post for ESPN’s The Max Info Blog examining players making the second base/third base positional swap:

A year ago, 26 players played at least 50 innings at both second base and third base, and it wasn’t just utility infielders playing part time; Alberto Callaspo, Adam Kennedy, Martin Prado, and Ian Stewart were among the everyday players who spent a decent amount of time at both second and third. As a whole, these players were one run above average at second base per 150 games played and two runs below average at third base per 150 games played. It’s a difference so small as to not be important.

There could be a selection bias here — perhaps those players have attributes that led their respective teams to conclude they could handle both spots. But let’s say for the sake of argument that LaRoche would also be about average defensively at second base. That’s his best ticket in terms of retaining value to the Pirates, given that the positional adjustment (+2.5) is the same at second as it is at third.

However, LaRoche will have to contend with another fallen top prospect, Neil Walker, at that position. The catcher-turned-third baseman-turned-utility-man logged time at second, third, left field and first base at Triple-A Indianapolis this season, and he has settled in as the starter at the keystone in Pittsburgh. As with LaRoche, there’s not much to go on in terms of Walker’s adeptness at second. But he didn’t rate especially well in the minors by Total Zone at third. Let’s call him a -5 fielder at second base. Walker has a .328 rest-of-season ZiPS wOBA, a .331 rest-of-season CHONE and a .300 wOBA from Oliver for what’s left of 2010.

There’s no clear “winner” here among these two fallen prospects. Walker grades out as a slightly better hitter, and at 24 perhaps he has a little development time left. LaRoche looks like the better fielder, though that’s far from certain given that neither he nor Walker has much experience at second base. A platoon could develop — Walker’s a switch-hitter, but he batted just .251/.313/.390 against left-handed pitching in the minors.

Regardless, the Pirates have to be disappointed with the non-development of LaRoche. This is what his career has come to– in Pittsburgh, he’s a utility man who’s only useful if he can cut it at the keystone spot.

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