White Sox fans could be forgiven for not giving thought to Adam LaRoche the person much before Tuesday afternoon. After all, it wasn’t really their place. Even clubhouse tales of LaRoche’s character and integrity could be filed away as intangible considerations for figuring the value of LaRoche the player, and after a miserable 2015 season, the perceived value of LaRoche the player had pointed to the assessment that he probably needed to go to make way for the vast array of better available options, if his $13 million salary would allow him.
There were even reports of the Sox trying to eat salary to ship LaRoche out to add gristle to this narrative.
Tuesday afternoon offered a resolution, with word of LaRoche’s shocking announcement that he will likely retire, but suddenly pushed LaRoche the person to the forefront in a deeply painful way.
Coming into spring following a disastrous 2015 season marred throughout by back pain and cut short by patella tendinosis, LaRoche’s back locked up during the second day of game action. Despite an initially optimistic prognosis of a quick recovery, his announcement Tuesday came without him getting a chance to return to game action. He’s leaving for “personal reasons” that he pledges to elaborate on later, but it’s easy to speculate that LaRoche’s decline and end in Chicago come at the hands of injuries and ailments overwhelming him, and taking him too far from the player he expects himself to be.
At a team-building level, LaRoche’s departure has terrible timing for the Sox, as it comes after most of the last remains of passable options have been picked clean from the market, even just in the past week. But it’s impossible to divorce the guy who is possibly retiring and surrendering $13 million because he feels incapable of doing his job anymore from the guy who came to camp determined to bounce back from his career nadir and contribute. It’s the same self-sacrificing nature, but more plaudits usually come for giving up the money than playing hurt, since playing hurt is usually playing bad.
Watching LaRoche struggle and drag through the past year has made the end of his career a constant specter, and yet the arrival of this reality, especially at the peak of Spring optimism, is still gruesome. It’s easy to imagine the compact whirlwind of pain and disappointment he faced between triumphantly returning to action with a home run last week and pushing aside his teammates pleas for him to reconsider this week.
What is a very somber moment for LaRoche is clearly, and perhaps unfairly, a boon for the franchise, which already needed to be wary of the possibility that he would not rebound to be a serviceable hitter. Now they have a clear path to proceed and improve, with $13 more million to spend and no plate appearances in real games used on finding out whether he can compete anymore.
Surrendering the money he would have made in 2016 will get chalked up to LaRoche’s sense of fairness, but the MLB market is set up for players to earn guaranteed money off of previous year’s performance. LaRoche’s performance record through 2014 demanded a $25 million guarantee, and while his unwillingness to collect on it speaks to his adherence to personal standards on what is worth sacrificing for a paycheck, his decision is about him, and should not be taken as a manifesto on what players are obligated to do when their performance slips below expectations. Make no mistake, the potential for this to happen was already factored into the size of the Sox offer; they’re not entitled to a refund for incurring the risk they used for price relief.
The Sox will chug on. Things look bleak right now, and they may suffer through some periods of Avisail Garcia as the regular DH if they choose to wait for the mid-season trade market to unfurl, but they will have options and financial flexibility for upgrades even if they wait that long. Christina Kahrl of ESPN recommended Justin Morneau, whose career lines (Multi-year .301 TAv vs. righties) suggest he could provide what LaRoche was supposed to give, even if he would need to make a similar decision about what he’s able to endure and what he can still provide at this point in his concussion-marred career. Marlon Byrd would not provide first base relief for Jose Abreu, but the veteran could represent another MLB-quality bat in camp (though PECOTA projects him to post a measly .255 TAv in 2016), likely on a minor league deal, and that becomes handy very quickly if there’s no offensive recovery from Avisail Garcia or Austin Jackson. If these seem like poor consolation prizes, they can comfort themselves with the knowledge that they should have already signed Justin Upton anyway.
LaRoche the player will be quickly moved on from by a team that never got a glimpse of his best. It’s hard to describe this as going out on his own terms, but for LaRoche the person, it’s rare that an athlete at the end of his career gets his humanity considered as clearly as his shocking gesture forced.