With Zim out, Nats need LaRoche to hit

No National League team entered play Thursday with a better record than the upstart Washington Nationals. Manager Davey Johnson's team has been able to thrive due to terrific pitching (major league-leading 2.20 ERA), timely hitting, a whole lot of walks (third in baseball) and let's face it, a cake schedule. However, oft-injured third baseman Ryan Zimmerman's shoulder is hurting, and if he misses weeks instead of days, it's reasonable to wonder if this team can score enough runs to keep winning these close games.

That's where first baseman Adam LaRoche comes in. Including his three hits Wednesday, LaRoche is batting .313 and leads the club in pretty much every offensive category except stolen bases. He's first in batting average, tied for the lead with two home runs, is the only National in double digits in RBIs, and he sports an .880 OPS. Washington's top five options on the ESPN Player Rater are pitchers, but LaRoche leads the offense, and he's 73rd on the Rater among all hitters. It's not fantastic, but there's value here.

Entering Thursday, LaRoche ranked fifth among first basemen on our most-added list, and he's owned in 78.2 percent of leagues. That seems legitimate; fantasy owners should be interested in a player who has shown consistent power, when healthy, through the years. However, it was a bit tough to make a case for LaRoche back in March, which is why ignoring him on draft day made sense. After all, he missed most of 2011 after left shoulder surgery, and when he did play, it was unimpressive (.172 batting average). Of course, how can someone hit effectively with a bum shoulder?

LaRoche used to be one of my late sleeper picks at corner infield, a steady, consistent yet often overlooked performer who produced reasonable power numbers for the Braves, Pirates and Diamondbacks before landing in D.C. And certainly the Nationals' rumored offseason flirtation with free-agent first baseman Prince Fielder gave pause that even they believed LaRoche would be able to contribute. LaRoche hit 25 home runs for the 2010 Diamondbacks, knocking in more than 90 runs for the first time. He hit 32 home runs in 2006 and 25 in 2008 and 2009. In general, his batting average sits in the .270 range and he won't score many runs or steal bases, but with scoring down across baseball, any potential 25-homer guy matters.

For the Nationals, a team that hasn't had the services of top power option Michael Morse and could be losing regular No. 3 hitter Zimmerman for a few weeks, if not more, with a shoulder problem (sounds again like a Scott Rolen career path to me), the pressure will turn to LaRoche to continue his hot start. This is not a top-shelf offense; the Nationals enter Thursday ranked 22nd in runs scored, and only the Chicago Cubs have fewer than their 10 home runs. The top of the lineup features impatient, low-OBP middle infielders (Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa), and Jayson Werth isn't hitting for power (nearly half his RBIs have come on bases-loaded walks!). The schedule-makers gifted the Nats with the Cubs, Mets, Astros and Padres already, and the team is 6-2 in one-run games. In other words, the competition will get tougher.

LaRoche hit his home runs in the second and third games of the season against the Cubs, but hasn't hit any since. Wednesday's RBI single off Padres lefty Josh Spence was his first in more than a week. And it's difficult to expect him to hit near .300 much longer. Still, this has always been an underrated power source, and it's reasonable to overlook 2011 as an injury-plagued campaign. I wouldn't call LaRoche a top-20 first baseman, so perhaps this would be a good time for fantasy owners to test his value on the open market, but unless injury strikes, he shouldn't embarrass himself either.

Expect more than 20 home runs, 80 RBIs and a .270 batting average. I can't say definitively that any of the four first basemen being added in more leagues over the past week -- Bryan LaHair, Justin Morneau, Mike Carp, Adam Dunn -- will end up providing all three of those statistical benchmarks. LaHair is holding the job for Anthony Rizzo, though I think he'll continue to hit. Morneau's concussion issues are well-documented. Carp isn't proven or special by any means, and has to hit half the time at Safeco Field. And Dunn will reach those power numbers, but hit .240. LaRoche falls below the Freddie Freeman/Carlos Pena range at first base for me, but he's in the same class as Kendrys Morales, Mat Gamel and Ike Davis (each 20-80 options), and batting average-killers Paul Goldschmidt, Chris Davis and Justin Smoak. It would have been tough to guess that a month ago, but that's why most fantasy leagues have free agency.