LaRoche trying to prove worth in winter ball

LaRoche trying to prove worth in winter ball

PITTSBURGH -- More than 2,200 miles away on a Venezuelan island, Andy LaRoche is trying to prove that he deserves another chance.

By the end of the 2010 season, it was hard to see where LaRoche, once a promising third-base prospect in the Dodgers' organization, could find a future fit on a Pirates team that acquired him as part of the Jason Bay trade in July 2008.

Pushed aside to give everyday playing time to Pedro Alvarez in mid-June, LaRoche had no place to go but to the bench. There, he spent the final three-and-a-half months attempting to salvage some degree of success.

Episodes of success turned out to be few and far between.

LaRoche never found his swing in a pinch-hitting role, mostly looking lost and out of sorts when he was summoned for an occasional at-bat. He made just five starts after the All-Star break, and the position that many expected LaRoche to transition into (second base) has become Neil Walker's for the foreseeable future.

Following a short break at the end of the season, LaRoche left to play winter ball with the Bravos de Margarita club in Venezuela. His decision to participate was two-fold. He needed to make up for the at-bats missed during the regular season. And he needed to get defensive work at all four infield positions in an attempt to increase his versatility.

"I don't want to say it's make-or-break for Andy, but this offseason is very important for him as we go through the evaluation process," general manager Neal Huntington said. "There is still ability in there, and he has a willingness to bounce around and play second and short. Can he be serviceable there? Can he be a middle utility guy? Can he be that bat off the bench? Those are questions that we have to answer, compared to the internal and external options this offseason."

That evaluation is ongoing, and LaRoche could very well be running out of time to make a statement. By midnight ET on Nov. 19, the Pirates must put players they want to protect from the Rule 5 Draft onto the club's 40-man roster.

In order to create room for all the necessary additions, the Pirates are going to do some subtracting, as well. LaRoche could be among the cuts. If he stays on through that roster shuffle, there is still a chance that the club will not tender him a contract by the Dec. 2 deadline.

LaRoche is arbitration-eligible for the first time this offseason, meaning that he's due a nice pay raise from the $451,000 he made in 2010. And LaRoche's inability to produce without consistent at-bats is a serious concern for a player trying to find a spot as a utility infielder.

What the Pirates have to determine is whether there is a chance that he can still hone those pinch-hitting skills.

"We're working through that," Huntington said. "In a lot of cases, you ask guys to go down [to Latin America] for the experience because it's a make-or-break experience. In Andy's case, it is about the extra at-bats and the defensive versatility to try and answer some of those questions."

Huntington said that LaRoche will play all four infield positions during his time in winter ball. Obviously, there are no concerns about LaRoche's ability to play third. He started four games at second and two at first this season, after spending much of the second half of the year taking ground balls at both spots.

Though LaRoche has never played short at the big league level, that was his primary position in high school.

LaRoche's ability to get comfortable across the diamond is trumped by his needs to improve offensively. So far, the results in Venezuela don't show many strides in that area. Through Tuesday, LaRoche was 12-for-64 (.188 batting average) with three doubles, two homers, six RBIs and a .303 on-base percentage in 19 games. He had drawn 11 walks and struck out 18 times.

The results have improved some recently, though, as LaRoche batted .290 over his most recent 10 games. Whether there are signs that LaRoche can succeed in a backup role is something that management will shed light on over the next few weeks as the Pirates make these critical roster decisions.

"It's been a very tough year for Andy," Huntington said. "He's shown the work ethic and taken a very difficult assignment as professional as he could. I think we're the first ones to acknowledge that we've put Andy in a tough situation. To get a pinch-hit here or there, to get a couple innings here or there, it's very tough to be successful at."

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