LaRoche having to adjust to bench role

LaRoche having to adjust to bench role

PITTSBURGH -- Plain and simple, Andy LaRoche missed his chance.

All combined, LaRoche had nearly two full seasons to secure a long-term starting spot on a Pirates club that has been all about giving young players the chance to establish themselves.

That's not to say that LaRoche was necessarily going to be the third baseman of the future. But he did have the opportunity to force the organization to find a spot for him somewhere.

Maybe it would have meant a move to first base for Pedro Alvarez. Maybe it would have meant that LaRoche, not Neil Walker, would have gotten the first crack at Aki Iwamura's second-base job. Maybe it would have meant more urgency to acclimate LaRoche with another position.

Now, though, that's all irrelevant as LaRoche finds himself watching games from the dugout bench.

"It's been tough," LaRoche said of the instant starter-to-bench-player transition. "But it is what it is. You have to keep going out there and try to make yourself better every day. You can't let anything affect you. Just go out there and try to work hard and try to do what you can, whenever your name is called."

Acquired from the Dodgers as part of the July 2008 deal that sent Jason Bay to Boston, LaRoche stepped in as the team's starting third baseman immediately. He hit just .152 in the season's final two months, but rebounded to post respectable, if less than ideal for the position he plays, numbers last season.

Yet, the offensive production -- and more surprisingly, the defensive consistency -- lagged this year. Hitting just .232 with three homers and 12 RBIs on June 15, there was no debate as to whether LaRoche was ready to be supplanted by Alvarez.

"In Andy's case, it's unfortunate, in that it hasn't worked out the way either of us expected, [the way] most of us expected," general manager Neal Huntington said. "Andy is still a good Major League player. As we look forward, we see Andy as a quality player with always the ability to step in and do more."

Unless someone gets hurt, it's difficult to foresee a scenario in which LaRoche can ever work his way back into a starting job in Pittsburgh. Alvarez isn't going anywhere at third base, and Walker has only continued to cement his spot as the team's everyday second baseman of the future.

That leaves LaRoche pigeonholed as a 26-year-old bench player.

"The reality is, he's in a tough spot," Huntington said. "He's in a spot where two young players are getting their feet wet, but also finding out what they can do themselves. It's tough for young players when they don't play consistently. Andy's now experiencing that from this point, but he's also already experienced that from being the young player trying to play every day."

LaRoche has made only six starts since Alvarez made his Major League debut on June 16. Five of those came in a six-game span when infielders Walker and Bobby Crosby were sidelined with concussions. Combined with the 18 pinch at-bats he's taken in that span, LaRoche has just six hits -- only one for extra bases -- in 34 at-bats.

He continues to get work almost daily at second base, adding the position to increase his versatility. After the season, Huntington said, there will be conversations about whether adding another position to LaRoche's resume would benefit the club, long term.

Shortstop would seem the most logical addition, if there is one, given that LaRoche was drafted as a shortstop in 2003. To this point, he hasn't revisited that position since then.

"We've still got two months left to this season and all of the offseason before next year," LaRoche said. "If they want me to work at other positions, I'm more than happy to. Pretty much, all I can do is what they tell me to do. I'll work where they tell me to work."

LaRoche knows he doesn't have any other option, given how unlikely it looks that he'll ever get another shot at third base or second in Pittsburgh. Still, there is no guarantee that picking up another position would lead to additional playing time.

"As far as an opportunity goes with this team, I don't know," LaRoche said. "Anything can happen. We'll just have to wait and see."

The infielder will be arbitration eligible for the first time at season's end, which means the club could decide to cut ties with him then. However, LaRoche's salary isn't likely to jump too far above the $451,000 he is making this season. And for a player the Pirates still view as having some value, whether it's coming off the bench or in the trade market, that is a reasonable enough figure to expect LaRoche to be back next season.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.