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Heading into Big Season, Washington Nationals Choose LaRoche Over Morse

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COMMENTARY | It's unavoidable in sports -- difficult, sometimes painful decisions have to be made to choose one player over another. It's a problem more often faced by the better teams, where roster spots are more difficult to come by.

It's a problem rarely faced by the Washington Nationals, who -- until 2012 -- had never had a winning season since arriving in D.C., and had never experienced much drama concerning the makeup of the roster.

But coming off of the surprising division-winning 2012, the Nats spent the offseason tweaking their roster with big hopes for 2013. Eventually, the team found itself with one starting position remaining and two of its most popular players lined up for it. That Adam LaRoche and Michael Morse are polar opposites in many ways made the decision all the more interesting.

Musical Chairs

It would be unfair to say that this is an entirely new phenomenon for the Nats, and last season may have foreshadowed the coming dilemma. Heading into 2012, the team raised eyebrows when it couldn't find a spot in the starting rotation for two-time opening-day starter John Lannan. We know now that the team would follow with a special season -- a division title based in large part on the deep, talented starting rotation.

Fast forward to this offseason, and the dilemma was a much larger one. In LaRoche and Morse, the Nationals had two players who both played integral roles for the team on and off the field, and whom both unquestionably deserved a starting spot in the line-up.

The situation was spurred by the offseason acquisition of Minnesota Twins CF Denard Span. It's an addition that bodes well for the team, filling a stubborn, ongoing need for a legitimate CF and lead-off hitter. With Span anchoring CF, that allows Bryce Harper to assume a permanent home in left after bouncing around the outfield in his rookie season. But it also left Morse and LaRoche still standing in this game of musical chairs with only 1B available.

Buck versus Cobra

In LaRoche, the Nats have a steady, inconspicuous veteran who resurrected his career in D.C. He's had some great stretches in his career, but he's mostly bounced around: Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Boston, Atlanta again, Arizona. His one and only year with the Diamondbacks in 2010 was his first 100-RBI season after all of those years, but it wasn't enough to keep him with Arizona. Then his stint with the Nationals began with an utterly forgettable 2011, with a .172 average in 43 games, ending in shoulder surgery.

That performance made 2012 -- a complete reversal of fortune -- all the more eye-popping. LaRoche carried the team through large stretches and looked like a legitimate, if often overlooked, MVP candidate for much of the season. It wasn't only his bat -- all along he provided steady defense on the field and steady leadership off of it. The result: his first Silver Slugger, his first Gold Glove, and the team's first division championship.

While LaRoche was a quiet presence -- he's an unknown quantity off the field outside of his interest in hunting, particularly his co-ownership of the cable hunting show "Buck Commander" -- Michael Morse is a true character. The outgoing prankster blossomed into a fan-favorite, only partly due to his rise as a feared slugger. After showing signs in 2010, he broke out in 2011. Spending much of the season filling in at 1B, he finished with a .303 average and 31 HRs.

But Morse is clearly best-known in D.C. for what he does before he gets to the plate -- his quirky batting-stance ritual in the on-deck circle that came to be known as "Samurai Cobra," and his surprising choice of at-bat music for late-inning situations -- A-ha's 1980s classic "Take on Me." The former inspired a bobblehead figure commemorating the stance, and the latter became one of the first, full-fledged, grassroots traditions at Nationals Park as tens of thousands of fans look forward to singing along each game and hitting the high notes.

Looking Forward

Perhaps the Nats should have found a way to keep both players on the roster. You could make a case that it would have been a better offseason investment than the surprising, expensive signing of closer Rafael Soriano -- joining closer Drew Storen and part-time closer Tyler Clippard in the backend of the bullpen.

But the Nats decided there wasn't room for both LaRoche and Morse. After lengthy negotiations, the team re-signed LaRoche to a two-year deal when the 33-year-old couldn't find the three-year deal he wanted in the free-agent market. Morse was then traded to the Seattle Mariners, returning him to the team where he spent his first four seasons. There don't appear to be hard feelings among any of the parties involved, and now it's time to look ahead.

For the Nationals, going with LaRoche has the reassuring feel of an old-school move, valuing defense over HRs. It's hard not to pull for LaRoche to continue his renaissance, and it's also hard to deny that the Nats' lineup in 2013 will be even more complete than in 2012.

But for now, Nats fans can't help but look toward opening day and be left wondering one thing: When do we sing "Take on Me"?

KW Rosenfeld is an award-winning writer who visited every major league ballpark in the summer of 1991. A longtime resident of Northern Virginia, he's still thankful that baseball has returned to D.C.

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