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Posted at 02:53 PM ET, 01/02/2012

On Prince Fielder and the Nationals


(Matt Slocum - Associated Press)
The Nationals have frequently been linked this offseason with Prince Fielder, the best remaining free agent and the kind of slugger who would instantly make the playoffs in Washington seem closer to likelihood than fantasy. The public speculation continued today, when Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Tom Haudricourt, who’s covered Fielder for years, cited an anonymous MLB official who considered the Nationals a “favorite” to land Fielder.

The notion of one team being favored to land Fielder is vague in and of itself. At this stage, despite January having arrived, it’s still too early to anoint any one team the clear-cut best bet to land Fielder. But the Nationals are one of many teams still with a shot to land the slugging first baseman.

Today, Scott Boras, Fielder’s agent, said the market for Fielder is still developing as he spreads information to teams about him, and that new teams are still entering the discussion. He did not discuss specifics, but he gave a broad overview of where things stand.

“As I’ve told many, there’s a lot of passengers on the PF Flyer,” Boras said. “I keep having discussions with teams, and they keep coming back after those discussions. We are having a very robust and constant communication with many teams.

“We’ve had an opportunity over the last 10 days to certainly get more definition, I would say. Normally in free agency, after a period of time you have teams that move to the background. When we think that’s happened, those teams have called back and they’ve changed their position.”

Boras, wanting to keep discussions private, would not comment on which teams, or how many teams, are vying for Fielder. He also declined to name what team owners he has met with about Fielder, including if the Nationals owners had spoken with him.

But it is safe to assume that he has discussed Fielder with Nationals’ ownership, Ted Lerner included.

Publicly, General Manager Mike Rizzo has downplayed any interest in Fielder. But, reading between the lines, he has certainly not ruled it out. He said in an interview on MLB Network Radio last week that, “We’ve more or less decided that Adam [LaRoche] is going to be our first baseman. Unless something extraordinary, out of the ordinary happened, that’s how we’re going to go to spring training.”

Many people took that to mean Rizzo was shooting down rumors about Fielder. Here’s the thing: Signing Fielder would be the definition of “something extraordinary.” It would take, one assumes, at least $200 million. He is the best free agent available, a 27-year-old who has hit more home runs than anyone except Albert Pujols over the last three seasons and who already has hit 230 career homers. Nothing about acquiring Fielder would be ordinary.

“Probably the best I can say, he’s a combination of Henry Kissinger and Frank Howard,” Boras said. “He’s got brute strength power. He’s a diplomat in the locker room.”

Any final decision, and much of any potential negotiation, in regard to Fielder, would occur at the Nationals ownership level. At the outset of the offseason, many within the Nationals’ organization operated under the assumption that the Lerners would not be motivated to make a big free agent splash. But they also knew it would only take a change in ownership’s thinking to change their stance. At the least, their stance against a big-money splash has thawed.

The longer Fielder remains on the market, in my estimation, the better the chances are that they’ll come around to the idea of adding him. They have a close and productive relationship with Boras, whose greatest talent as an agent is reaching owners and making a compelling case for them to sign his clients.

Boras’s main argument, surely, will revolve around what a rare player he is. While there are plenty of slugging first baseman in the game, few hit as well as Fielder, who has a .951 OPS over the past five seasons. Fewer become available as a free agent so soon, at only 27 years old — or five years younger than Albert Pujols.

Boras negotiated Jayson Werth’s seven-year, $126 million deal last winter, a move that, like virtually all signings of this magnitude, took significant involvement from ownership. He also negotiated the megadeals signed by first overall picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, and the Nationals have a gaggle of other draft picks and major leaguers represented by Boras.

There are baseball reasons to avoid signing Fielder. The kind of contract Boras is pushing for, for nine or 10 years, would take Fielder into his age 37 season, and the track record of players with Fielder’s burly body type performing deep into their 30s is not good. (Fielder’s youth, though, makes him unique. Since he’s younger than most free agents – the team that signs him will be paying for more years of his prime and fewer years on the backend of his career.) The Nationals also have to consider their budget for future deals, most urgently a possible contract extension for third baseman and franchise leader Ryan Zimmerman.

The addition of Fielder, though, would make the Nationals an instant, bona fide contender. Before the offseason began, Rizzo said he believed the Nationals were one top-tier starting pitcher and one big bat from chasing the playoffs. The Nationals landed the pitcher with the trade for Gio Gonzalez, a move that signaled they feel they’re ready to win now. Adding Fielder’s huge left-handed bat to the middle of a lineup that includes Zimmerman, Werth and Michael Morse would give them the offensive punch they lacked last year as they finished 80-81.

Fielder’s presence, particularly on the heels of the Gonzalez trade and with Strasburg returning for a full season, would also raise the team’s profile locally and help fill Nationals Park – the Brewers, for example, drew 3.3 million fans last year as Fielder starred for them. Any additional ticket sales would help recoup some of the money spent on Fielder.

But then, money alone shouldn’t be much of a hold-up. The Nationals are negotiating to receive a more lucrative cut from their partnership with broadcasting network MASN, which a potential Fielder signing would affect and be affected by. The negotiation should give the Nationals more available to spend on a big-ticket free agent. And signing a big-ticket free agent like would also give the Nationals more leverage in their negotiation.

The Nationals also saved money this winter when they traded for Gonzalez, who has yet to hit arbitration, instead of signing free agent Mark Buehrle, whom they offered $39 million over three years before he took a richer offer from the Marlins. And most important, Ted Lerner is a billionaire, the richest owner in baseball, according to Forbes. His will matters more than any bottom line.

It would also raise their presence within the sport, giving the Nationals a legitimate star that would help attract other free agents. Giving Werth his massive contract helped open the door to signing other players. Fielder would knock it down.

With January having arrived and pitchers and catchers set to report in less than 50 days, Fielder should be signing relatively soon. The public speculation of Fielder winding up with the Nationals doesn’t mean it will happen. (The Nationals would be content heading into the season with LaRoche at first base and Morse as a contingency.) But Fielder is still out there, and that means there’s still time for Boras to talk Ted Lerner into signing one more of his star, potentially franchise-changing clients.

MORE
Boz says the Nats shouldn’t sign Fielder
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Dave Sheinin offers more thoughts.

By  |  02:53 PM ET, 01/02/2012

 
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