Last year at this date on the baseball calendar, the first official day of the winter meetings, we were all trying scrape our jaws off the floor, learning the meaning of “Phase Two” and picturing what Jayson Werth would look like in a Nationals uniform. On the Sunday before the winter meetings, they signed Werth to a seven-year, $126 million deal, stealing the spotlight and making the biggest splash in baseball.
Last night, the new-look, new-park, new-everything Miami Marlins filled the role the Nationals played last year. Following up their Heath Bell signing this week, the Marlins shelled out $106 million over six years to sign former Mets shortstop Jose Reyes. Make no mistake, the signing made life tougher for the Nationals in the National League East. Even though Reyes shifted within the division, he moved from a team trying to rebuild on the cheap to the one suddenly puffing its chest and making splashes in an effort to fill its stadium.
Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio, one of the few players in the league faster than Reyes, will wreak havoc at the top of the lineup. Hanley Ramirez, Gaby Sanchez and Logan Morrison will sit behind them. Pitching to the Marlins lineup will be tap-dancing through a minefield.
Meanwhile, the Phillies continue to print money. And the Marlins aren’t even done yet, it seems. So will the Nationals respond? Will they make another Werthian splash, to steal back headlines and match the Marlins?
Don’t bet on it.
Now, I guess that depends on your definition of a splash. The Nationals will be active here, especially in pursuit of left-hander Mark Buehrle, their No. 1 target this winter. Buehrle has been perhaps the most popular free agent so far this winter, and it might take a four-year deal of about $50 million to sign him. The Marlins, incidentally, are one of the many teams reportedly in on Buehrle.
If he falls through, the Nationals will move to Roy Oswalt, who shares an agent with C.J. Wilson. The Nationals are likely keeping tabs on Wilson in case the price comes down, but Wilson, because he has been a starter for two years, does not fit the experienced innings-eater profile General Manager Mike Rizzo is looking for. And it’ll probably take almost $100 million to sign him.
But the talk about the Nationals going after Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols has been overblown. “That’s not even a good lie,” one Nationals official said last night. The Nationals do not view this season as their moment to really go for it. They think they will be competitive and are trying to add a center fielder and a starter with an eye on contention. But a free agent signing on the magnitude of Fielder or Pujols is not in their plans.
There is a disclaimer to that. If Ted Lerner wakes up tomorrow and decides he wants to sign Prince Fielder, he absolutely would have the money to do so. And there is no agent more proficient at making rich owners wake up and want to sign his clients than Scott Boras, who represents Fielder and a fistful of Nationals, including Werth. It’s not hard to imagine Boras selling Lerner on Fielder, telling him he would turn the middle of the Nationals’ lineup into a force that would enhance the value of his team.
Lerner might be the wealthiest owner in baseball, and last year’s Werth contract showed you can’t totally count the Nationals out of anything. But this year, at least for now and barring anything unforeseen, they are fine with leaving the big splashes to other teams this time around.