The Washington Times - December 18, 2012, 09:13AM

A few weeks ago, first at the winter meetings and again last week in D.C., Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson was hopeful that by Christmas he’d have his left-handed first baseman signed, sealed and back in the fold for the 2013 season.

But with that date inching ever closer, and now just six days away, the Nationals and Adam LaRoche don’t appear to be much closer to a deal than they have been at any point this offseason. LaRoche is still looking for a three-year deal, the Nationals still want him back on a two-year one. 

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The wait doesn’t seem to be bothering LaRoche, who told the Washington Post on Monday that he’d wait until April 1 if he had to, and it doesn’t appear to be bothering the Nationals all that much either, since general manager Mike Rizzo insisted at the winter meetings that he wouldn’t put any kind of a deadline on the negotiations.

The Nationals, many feel, hold all the cards in this negotiation. They’d love to have LaRoche back on what they feel is an appropriate deal but they’ve covered themselves, both in the lineup and in the field, in the event that he doesn’t return. That doesn’t mean that LaRoche wouldn’t still make them a better team, which he likely would, it simply means they won’t have a hole without him.

But there is one thing both sides can point to as to why the market for LaRoche has been slow to develop and, thus, his desire for more than the Nationals are offering is still apparently somewhat unfulfilled: draft pick compensation.

When the Nationals extended a $13.3 million qualifying offer to LaRoche at the beginning of November, which he subsequently declined, they made it so that any team that signs the 33-year-old will surrender their first- or second-round pick in the 2013 draft.

How highly do teams value their draft picks (especially the early rounds)? Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the penalty for spending 5-10 percent over a team’s bonus pool allotment to sign their draft picks now results in the loss of a first-round pick in the next year’s draft; 10-15 percent over equals the loss of a first- and second-round pick; 15 percent over means the loss of two first-round picks.

When the possibility came up last summer that the Nationals might have to go over their allotment enough to forfeit a draft pick in order to sign Lucas Giolito, one Nationals official was blunt about it. The team, the official said, would never give up a draft pick in that situation. For an organization that built the majority of it’s 98-win unit in 2012 through the draft, those picks are simply viewed as far too valuable to surrender.

The Nationals, of course, are hardly alone in viewing the draft that way. So it’s easier to understand, then, why many major league teams are looking at the prospect of losing that precious draft pick when signing a 33-year-old — albeit a Silver Slugger-winning, Gold Glove-earning, high-character one like LaRoche — and hesitating.

Nine players received qualifying offers (a one-year deal for $13.3 million) this offseason and all nine of those players turned them down. David Ortiz and Hiroki Kuroda both re-signed with their respective teams, thus no draft picks changed hands in the transactions. The Braves gave one up for B.J. Upton and the Angels surrendered one last week to sign Josh Hamilton. But Michael Bourn, Kyle Lohse, LaRoche, Rafael Soriano and Nick Swisher still remain unsigned and all carry with them a draft pick penalty.

For someone like Bourn, perhaps, it might not change his market (though it’s become more difficult to see what that market is with all of the trades for center fielders), but for LaRoche, for Soriano, for Swisher, even for Lohse, it’s not difficult to understand teams reluctance to pursue them knowing the cost on top of whatever deal they reach with the player.

That’s exactly what appears to be happening in Baltimore, where The Baltimore Sun wrote on Monday that the Orioles are legitimately interested in the first baseman, but not without some hesitancy.

“Some within the Orioles’ organization would be willing to give LaRoche a third year on a fair-market deal, but if they signed him, it would run counter to executive vice president Dan Duquette’s plan of rebuilding from the draft,” writes Dan Connolly.

“A LaRoche signing by the Orioles would mean the loss of their first-round draft pick in 2013 (the 24th pick overall) because the Nationals made the pending free agent a qualifying offer this fall. Duquette has stressed the importance of building through the draft and the confidence he has in scouting director Gary Rajsich and his staff to uncover important building blocks. So you can’t expect Duquette to be thrilled to give up a draft pick for a 33-year-old infielder, no matter how much he may fit.”

The Nationals knew that they’d be deflating the market for LaRoche when they attached the pick to him, but given that he was (and is) a player they want to re-sign, and the fact that they felt they needed some compensation if their top free agent were to walk, they made the calculated decision to do it.

So far, it seems to be playing out just the way they’d like, if a little slower than they’d like.