- Alan Schwarz, MLB
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When Adam LaRoche talks about how all his hard work "is about to pay off," he means more than the end of a long climb, or the spiritual satisfaction of a goal attained. He's being literal: Those credit-card bills will finally be paid off.
When you're a 29th-round draft pick out of junior college, you don't go through the minor leagues with cash bulging out of your pockets. Monthly paychecks of $1,110 or $2,150 (and you get just six of 'em) don't go far, especially when you have a wife and two young kids. Even if you score a construction gig in a few offseasons -- "Lots of drywall," LaRoche reports -- your plastic pulses with ever-growing debt.
So when LaRoche steps onto Turner Field as the Braves' starting first baseman this April, making a cool $300,000 a year, he'll be entitled to his sigh of relief. "It'll be nice to bring that first paycheck to the family and let them settle down," he says. Then LaRoche can get down to his real business, making pitchers uncomfortable.
However dreamily he might envision this future, LaRoche's playing first base for the Braves on Opening Day is no fantasy; it's a virtual lock. The club has let Robert Fick walk and is relying on septuagenarian Julio Franco as a backup only. Atlanta has every intention of throwing LaRoche straight into the fire. "He's my first baseman as I see it," manager Bobby Cox says.
If you haven't heard of Adam LaRoche, you aren't alone. He is a rare bird, a player who has never before played in the majors starting on Opening Day. Twins catcher Joe Mauer is one of baseball's few other projected starters with "0 + 000" in major league service column; Terrmel Sledge of the Expos might be another, but that's about it. If you recognize LaRoche's name at all, it's probably because his father, Dave LaRoche, pitched in the majors from 1970-83 and became famous for his "La Lob," an eephus pitch that arced about 30 feet in the air before leaving hitters -- particularly Brewers slugger Gorman Thomas -- flailing and flummoxed.
Adam LaRoche's talent is far more easy to track: He's a basic left-handed batter with a fine stroke and gap power, one who won't blow your eyes out but won't make you want to shut them, either. Two years ago, he led all Braves prospects with a .317 batting average at Class A and Double-A. Last season, he added some power and led the organization with 20 homers and 72 RBI. Baseball America has rated him Atlanta's No. 6 prospect, the No. 73 in baseball overall.
A fine defensive player, LaRoche will probably hit seventh or eighth in the Braves' lineup against right-handers, so virtually he'll play every day. Think Wally Joyner -- not the rookie sensation from 1986, but the quiet, solid performer of later years. LaRoche is about as loud as a cotton avalanche, speaking barely above a whisper and sharing an eerie facial resemblance to the equally tranquil John Olerud. He hits just as calmly, too, batting coach Terry Pendleton says: "He attacks the baseball quietly. Slow feet, quick hands."
LaRoche, 24, plans for the transition to the big leagues to be similarly unremarkable. "I don't want to try to be somebody I'm not," he says. "I don't have to start hitting more home runs or doing something I haven't done in the past. That's what's gotten me here. I don't want to come into spring training and change anything. I'm not going out there looking to hit a lot of home runs. I'd like to hit doubles. That's my goal."
LaRoche might not change, but the Braves sure have. What once was a veteran-dominated club now has an infield -- Mark DeRosa, Rafael Furcal, Marcus Giles and LaRoche -- with an average of just 269 games of big league experience. (Not to mention new catcher Johnny Estrada.) With Javy Lopez, Greg Maddux, Gary Sheffield, Vinny Castilla and more having gone elsewhere just this offseason, the Braves' locker nameplates might as well be Write-On, Wipe-Off boards.
With pop's background, though, LaRoche isn't exactly a big league neophyte. And it's not as if Adam simply goofed around in his dad's clubhouses; Dave taught him how to hit, big league-style.
"He forced me to learn to hit to the opposite field. He was crazy about it," says LaRoche, whose younger brother Andy signed with the Dodgers last year for $1 million and is considered L.A.'s top middle-infield prospect. "We had a batting cage in our back yard, and he would literally quit and walk inside if we would pull five pitches. It didn't matter if he threw it in on your hands. Everything had to be to left field.
"From then on I was an opposite-field hitter. I couldn't pull the ball until maybe my second year of pro ball. I never pulled anything, because I was never taught. But it's much easier to learn that way than the other direction."
LaRoche became a prospect as a left-handed pitcher at Seminole State (Okla.) Junior College in 2000, but the Braves let him follow his preference of hitting. (Dave LaRoche took the opposite path, spending two years in the Angels system as an outfielder before switching to the mound.) He rose methodically up the Atlanta ladder before punctuating last season with a stint in Puerto Rican winter ball. He batted .333-7-20 in 96 at-bats there, convincing the Braves he's ready to hit big league pitching every day.
Heck, we know he can hit offspeed stuff. How many other big leaguers have stepped in so often against La Lob?
"I don't wanna brag," LaRoche laughs, "but I hit it pretty good."
Alan Schwarz is the Senior Writer of Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His first book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," will be published by St. Martin's Press in July.