A few days ago, Jayson Werth found himself in a conversation with teammates about Jim Thome. A 22-year veteran and five-time All-Star, Thome is one of the most well-liked players in the majors, in large part due to his genuine enjoyment for other players' success.
Saturday, Werth watched as Adam LaRoche's 30th home run cleared the right-field wall at Turner Field. He watched the Nationals' first baseman, who missed 118 games in 2011 with a torn labrum and suffered through its effects for the 43 games he did play in, reach a milestone he had only once surpassed in his nine-year career.
Werth thought of Thome.
"Rochey, he's such a good guy and such a big part of the team," Werth said Sunday. "When he does get hits and does do good you're even more happy for him, because you want to see a guy like that succeed."
The Nationals missed that LaRoche his first season in Washington. His injured shoulder rid him of so much of the on-field talent he's shown this season, hitting .269 with a .340 on-base percentage and a .503 slugging percentage. The lineup sorely lacked the left-handed presence that he brings in 2012, and the infield defense is immeasurably improved because of him.
Werth called him the "glue," and manager Davey Johnson opined that he's "one of the best infielders in the league."
LaRoche only shrugged.
"I don't look at [30 home runs] like I reached a goal," he said. "I'll always look back and think I need to cut down on the strikeouts, should've walked more, should've hit more doubles, driven in more runs, whatever it is. It just never seems to be good enough. That's part of the drive.
"I look at it like if I end the year at 30, I should've had 40. Those two months where I [stunk], I should've driven in 20 more runs. I'm not saying it's a positive trait to have, it's just how I look at it."
Less than a year ago, fans were clamoring for the Nationals to spend lavishly on Prince Fielder and to forget the rest of LaRoche's contract. Now, whether LaRoche will return for 2013 has become one of the Nationals' most pressing questions. He and the team hold a mutual $10 million option, and the recruiting process for him to stay has begun.
"We need him back more than we need me back," quipped Johnson, who said he would push both sides for LaRoche to return and figured he'd sweeten the deal by promising LaRoche that he won't have to give the 69-year-old manager shots on the golf course next year.
"I thought it was a club option rather than mutual. I was unhappy to hear that he could test the free agent market."
LaRoche, for his part, would love to remain with the Nationals, and the Nationals find the option year to be a good value. But at 32 and with his fifth major league organization, LaRoche is looking for something more long-term.
"They've got to probably make some decisions on what they need and what direction they want to go in," LaRoche said, with talks likely shelved until the offseason. "I'd love to stay. If possible I'd like to commit to something for more than a year, preferably here if possible, it's just not my call. Nothing I can do but make it hard on them."
The Nationals' decision will involve questions elsewhere more so than anything regarding LaRoche. Is Bryce Harper their center fielder for another year? Is Tyler Moore ready to play every day? Are they going to pursue someone such as Atlanta's Michael Bourn on the free agent market? It all factors into whether they view LaRoche as part of their long-term plans.
All things being equal, no one would appear upset to see him back.
"We've talked about it," Werth said of perhaps convincing LaRoche to stay. "But when you start talking contracts, that's business. Obviously, we want to have him. He's a big part of our lineup, and the age thing is, I don't think it's as big a deal as people make it. I think he's got a lot of good years ahead of him."
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