My fantasy league that include minors all seems to have different ideas of what LaRoche's value is based on his injury problems and the Dodgers handling of him. I wrote this and posted it on my blog hoping to get to the bottom of it. Enjoy!
Earlier today, the Pittsburgh Pirates aquired Andy LaRoche as the key piece in the three way trade in which Jason Bay and Manny Ramirez changed addresses. Along with LaRoche, the Pirates received three other prospects, but none whose status approaches that of the former Dodger farmhand. Will LaRoche live up to his billing as a top prospect and power hitting third baseman? Or will his injury history catch up to him and keep him from reaching his potential?
LaRoche is a former 39th round pick by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2003 draft, LaRoche began hitting from day one and hasn't stopped yet. He has impressed at every level and likely would have been an everyday player a year or two ago had untimely injuries not robbed him of opportunities.
Entering 2008, LaRoche held an average prospect rating (APR) of #20 overall and was the consensus #2 prospect in the Dodgers organization making the question of whether LaRoche can play or not kind of odd. However, LaRoche's injuries, the Dodgers inability to find him consistent playing time, and the Casey Blake trade a few days before the trade deadline did a number on LaRoche's prospect status.
Let's take a look at his numbers in the minor leagues minus his age 19 season and the nineteen total at bats he registered after signing;
Age 20 - .259/.326/.479 between A- and A+
Age 21 - .305/.374/.553 between A+ and AA
Age 22 - .315/.410/.514 between AA and AAA
Age 23 - .309/.399/.589 in AAA (265 AB because of injury)
Age 24 - .297/.445/.428 between AA and AAA
His major league totals are .217/.348/316 in 152 AB during the 2007 and 2008 seasons.
In looking at his minor league statistics by year, I noticed he had three seasons in which he split time between two leagues earning promotions at some point during the season. In two of those seasons, he posted gaudy numbers at the lower level and declined sharply after being promoted only to dominate the league he struggled in the following year. While it highlighted LaRoche's ability to make adjustments, it might have inflated his prospect status a bit early on making him seem like a potential 35 home run hitter annually instead of the 25 home run pop I think he will end up having.
LaRoche's AAA performance also points to a potential 25 home run player. in 590 AAA at bats over parts of three seasons, he posted an overall line of .310 33 HR 36 2B 125 R 111 RBI and a 88/101 K/BB ratio. Obviously, these are huge numbers, but spread out over 167 games which is just over 1 1/3 full AAA seasons. What sticks out is that the K/BB ratio is extremely impressive, but his almost having as many home runs as doubles doesn't seem to leave much more room for power growth.
Many fantasy owners have been waiting with baited breath to see what LaRoche can do with consistent playing time and now is his chance. However, I worry that his torn ligament in spring training will affect his power for the rest of the 2008 season since his slugging percentage in the minor leagues was significantly lower than in 2007. From a fantasy perspective, this might afford an astute manager a great opportunity to pick up LaRoche in the offseason for less than half of his pre-2008 value.
As for 2009 and beyond, health will continue to play a major role in his achieving major league success but I can envision LaRoche as a .285/.385/.465 player who ends up making a couple of all star teams before all is said and done. Not exactly the MVP type performances some in the baseball world envisioned, but still good for top 5 among NL third basemen. Remember, however, that these projections are assuming he remains injury free for a period of time which is certainly no guarantee given his history.