I asked this question about Nyjer Morgan a while back, but I think it's actually far more relevant to ask the same question about Andy LaRoche. Everyone is thrilled with the way he's hitting right now (.297/.370/.414), but a lot of is because of just how bad he looked after his debacle last year. In reality, he was the main return on Jason Bay, and his OPS is still below .800 at the end of May. I think he'll likely get over .800 this year, but exactly what does LaRoche have to do to cement himself as both a good trade return and a good long-term third baseman for the Pirates?
Let's start by comparing LaRoche's performance this year to his projections. PECOTA (subscribers only) slotted him for a .267/.358/.412 season and then basically sees him having the same season for the next six years or so with a slight increase in power. If LaRoche finishes the season with his current line, that's a pretty incredible projection (off by 12 points of OBP and 2 slugging points) given all the disparity in his big league and minor league numbers, so in that case I'll certainly defer to PECOTA on the long-range forecast.
That would make LaRoche a pretty average third baseman. He'd certainly be better than replacement and he'd be a pretty solid starter, but he wouldn't be an All-Star by any means. For comparison, Pedro Feliz, Bill Mueller, and Joe Crede have both started at third base for recent World Series champs and LaRoche's 110 OPS+ outstrips all of them in their World Series year, so if Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez live up to expectations and Nate McLouth and Ryan Doumit hang around, LaRoche would probably be more than good enough at third base to make the Pirates an interesting team. People in Pittsburgh would probably still regard the trade as a flop, but they'd be wrong about that, because getting, say, four years of a solid starting third baseman plus whatever Moss, Hansen, and Morris contribute for one year of Bay thumping for a bad team before leaving for free agency isn't really a bad swap. It's not a great trade, but it certainly wouldn't be a bad one.
But what if he's better than that? Since April 16th, the day he recorded his first hit, LaRoche is hitting .333/.405/.465. Hi stats in those 38 games stretched out over 162 games would give him 47 doubles, 9 homers, and 90 RBIs to go with that line. One of the more interesting things I read about LaRoche when we traded for him was a comparison to him and Jason Kendall in his prime, before his thumb injury changed his career. For comparison, for anyone that doesn't remember a Kendall other than the slap-hitter we saw in his last few years in Pittsburgh or the giant black hole that he is with a bat now, in 1998, Kendall hit .327/.411/.473 with 36 doubles, 12 homers, and 75 RBIs. In 1998, 1999, and 2000, Kendall slugged over .470 with an OBP over .410. To that point in his career, Mickey Cochrane was his most comparable player and had he kept going at that rate, I'm not going to say he wouldn't have been a Hall of Famer.
Getting off my Jason Kendall tangent (man, I loved Jason Kendall) and back to the point, I'm not saying that I think Andy LaRoche is a future Hall of Famer, or even that he's equivalent to Jason Kendall in his prime. We just haven't seen enough from him to make any kind of judgment like that yet. Instead, I'm just trying to establish potential levels of performance and what they all mean. As it stands, I'd break it down about like this; if LaRoche keeps going at approximately the pace he's at right now for the full season (batting average around .300, OBP a good 70 points higher than that, OPS right around .800), then he's a nice player and a nice return for Bay. He's won't be a star, but he'll be a good Major Leaguer and one the Pirates can work with. If he gets into a crippling slump, which he's obviously been prone to in the past, and that line starts to sink at all, we're going to be looking for a third baseman. And if he really did throw a switch on April 16th and keeps hitting the way he has since then? It's probably time to shake Neal Huntington's hand.
Right now, I'm really interested in LaRoche's next 40 games. We've already seen him slump this year, and we've seen him kill the ball. Can LaRoche really be a .400 OBP guy that slugs .450, or is this just a good month for him? For now, I'm just happy that I can even entertain the thought. He's come a long way from the guy we saw last August and September.