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Posted at 10:49 AM ET, 01/05/2012

For the Nationals, Prince Fielder or Ryan Zimmerman is only a choice if they make it one


(Ross D. Franklin - AP)
The Nationals, if they’re inclined, do not have to choose between Ryan Zimmerman and Prince Fielder. They have the means to sign the face of their franchise to a contract extension and to land the game-changing free agent slugger.

But for the Nationals to acquire Fielder and extend Zimmerman, it would require a fundamental change in how the team’s ownership operates.

Since the Lerner family purchased the team from Major League Baseball in 2006, the perception has been that ownership has run the team more as a bottom-line business than as a competitive outlet.

As one baseball insider put it, when asked about the possibility of the team extending big offers to both Fielder and Zimmerman, “That’s not who Ted Lerner is.” Or, at least, that’s not how he has acted since taking over the Nationals.

The Nationals have the means to build and sustain a team with Fielder, Zimmerman and their other core players, at a price tag of about $145 million in payroll per year once the 2015 season rolls around. With all the disposable income in the DMV area, a coming bump in television revenue and the Lerner’s billionaire wealth, Washington can be that kind of market.

But Nationals ownership would need to fundamentally change the way it has behaved since taking over the team. It would need to be a steward that cares primarily about its long-term investment and spends from its enormous cash reserves, packs the park with fans and hopes to break even or, maybe, turn a small profit annually as the overall value of the franchise rises. That’s a very different motivation from yearly profit sheets.

But if the Nationals feel they must choose between Fielder and Zimmerman, the question comes down to whether they want to set themselves up to win big now or to win consistently for a long time.

Fielder would be the move that builds a dominant team now. With Zimmerman signed through 2013, the Nationals would effectively give themselves a two-to-three year shot with an elite team that, on paper, should be among favorites for the World Series. But it would suffer as Fielder hits the end of the his prime, Jayson Werth reaches his mid-30s and their salaries make it difficult for the Nationals to retain their whole young core. The Nationals’ carefully constructed plan would turn into a win-now mode. In their current mode of operation, the Nationals would have no choice but to jettison one or two of those young, core players to accommodate Fielder’s salary.


(Matt Slocum - AP)
By extending Zimmerman and not signing Fielder, the Nationals would not have as dominant a team in the short-term, but one capable of contending on an annual basis as their core of young players grows. The nature of a contract extension compared to signing a big-ticket free agent would save enough money that the Nationals would have far more flexibility to keep their core players together and have a sustained run of contention.

Signing Fielder or extending Zimmerman would help ensure a competitive team and more revenue without pushing their payroll to a point where it would erase profits. Doing both would risk breaking that balance – which, again, is something the Nationals can afford to do but, so far, have not shown any inclination toward.

The Zimmerman-Fielder dynamic is greatly affect by the Nationals’ underlying, significant payroll implications that derive from Jayson Werth’s backloaded contract and the money they will owe their young core as those players reach arbitration, which some of them already are.

Jordan Zimmermann, Michael Morse, Tyler Clippard and John Lannan are all eligible for arbitration now. Next year, all of those players and Gio Gonzalez, Drew Storen and Ian Desmond will be set for big arbitration raises. Then Stephen Strasburg, Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos would reach arbitration, with all the aforementioned players getting another round of raises. And on and on.

By 2015, given the dizzying market for both starters and relievers, Gonzalez, Storen, Strasburg and Zimmermann will have either surpassed or reached the cusp of an eight-figure yearly salary. And by that time, Harper will be nearing an arbitration raise.

The Nationals could save themselves by extending some of these players, or by trading them for younger, cheaper talent and fill the pipeline their roster that way. But one way or another, if they want to keep the majority of their core together, their payroll will start pushing toward $90-100 million by 2015 with Zimmerman OR Fielder.

While the Nationals’ young players receive raises in arbitration, Werth’s contract will also escalate based on its backloaded structure. He makes $16 million in 2013, $20 million in 2014 and $21 million each year from 2015 through 2017.

Current first baseman Adam LaRoche – whom the Nationals would be perfectly content with in 2012 if they do not land Fielder – is not really a factor when it comes to financial considerations. The Nationals could eat the majority of his $9 million salary in a trade, and that would be a minor, one-time hit in the scheme of Fielder’s massive salary.

The Nationals do have 2011 first-round pick Anthony Rendon – another Scott Boras client, by the way – as a cheap potential replacement for Zimmerman. Experts project Rendon as the best prospect in the Nationals’ system after Bryce Harper, and as a college hitter he’s got a mature plate approach that should get him to the majors quickly. He has an immensely bright future. But Rendon has yet to play a single professional game. To pencil him in, with absolute certainty, as a player who can fill Zimmerman’s shoes would be folly.

These are big questions. But then, this is a big moment. The Nationals under Mike Rizzo have shrewdly used the draft and scouting to acquire valuable assets and players capable of contending both immediately and into the future. Fielder would be a game-changer now, the kind of player who takes them from a playoff contender to the favorite in the division.

The question the Nationals must be asking themselves this winter is this: Do they want to win now, win later – or change their ways and try to do both?

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By  |  10:49 AM ET, 01/05/2012

 
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