For the Washington Nationals and Prince Fielder, the time is now


Signing a legitimate star like Prince Fielder to put in the middle of the lineup would give the Nationals an immediate chance to complete for a division title, even in the competitive NL East, and being the big dog would take pressure off teammates. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)
Jason Reid
Columnist January 7, 2012

It’s time for the Washington Nationals to really shake up their cast. They’re ready for a big-time leading man. Free agent first baseman Prince Fielder is the player the Nationals need — and prolific power is only part of his appeal.

With the Nationals working hard to attract attention for all the right reasons, the moment has arrived to put a new face on their franchise. And if it happened to be a black one, then so much the better, because it could only open more doors for them.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

On arrival, Fielder would become the Nationals’ first black superstar. That wouldn’t hurt the franchise’s efforts to broaden its appeal locally and nationally.

If Washington signed Fielder and the team excelled, it could gain a bigger share of the market. How much would a significant bump in attendance be worth to the Lerners? Increased ticket sales, more parking and concession revenue . . . it could happen.

The Lerners should follow the lead of Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder, who knows little about football but is second to none at marketing. Correctly, Snyder foresaw the impact quarterback Donovan McNabb would have on Redskins merchandising sales. And McNabb’s short run here wasn’t successful on the field.

Imagine the following Fielder could generate while hitting tape-measure home runs for many seasons.

Also, in the District, the potential of a productive black superstar to influence positive change cannot be underestimated. Who knows what Fielder could help the Nationals accomplish in the community?

Last season, outfielder Jayson Werth was badly miscast because of the ridiculous seven-year, $126 million contract the Lerners’ baseball people convinced them to give him. Werth flopped after receiving star treatment he didn’t deserve. He’s just not a leading man.

Werth was, however, a consistent contributor on some good Philadelphia Phillies teams. Perhaps he could reprise a successful supporting role if Washington signed someone else to step out front.

Then there’s Bryce Harper, who figures to struggle whether he begins 2012 on the opening day roster or is called up during the season. That’s the way it works for most rookies. With Fielder in the spotlight, Harper would face less pressure.

Some would suggest Werth is exhibit No. 1 on the list of reasons the Nationals shouldn’t sign Fielder. But the Lerners, for the most part, seem to be following General Manager Mike Rizzo’s lead.

Rizzo isn’t interested in assembling a team only capable of occasionally playing meaningful games in September. He wants to end the Phillies’ long reign atop the National League East. He’s intent on dominating the competition with power pitchers and multi-tooled position players.

Fielder would help Werth and, eventually, Harper while also accelerating the process of the Nationals becoming consistent winners. Those points are not debatable.

Only 27, Fielder is a true star. He thrived while shouldering much of the load for the Milwaukee Brewers, teaming with Ryan Braun last season to lead them to their first division title since 1982.

Ryan Zimmerman, Fielder and Michael Morse likely would occupy the Nos. 3-5 spots in Manager Davey Johnson’s everyday batting order. That’s impressive.

Combined with a high-ceiling starting rotation that includes Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann and recently acquired left-hander Gio Gonzalez, well, Washington could be ready to start something very special.

Rarely do such unique players become free agents as young as Fielder. Granted, Fielder is a very large man (he’s listed at 5 feet 11, 275 pounds). There is always concern in baseball about the potential for aging big men to quickly experience a sharp decline.

Also, Fielder has the “genes argument” working against him. His power-hitting father Cecil never produced at least 20 home runs in a season after he turned 32.

Even if the Nationals signed Fielder to a nine-year contract, he would come off their books at 36. In all likelihood, Washington would still get some of Fielder’s best seasons. And there’s no guarantee Fielder would experience a career drop-off identical to that of his father.

Since becoming an everyday player in 2006, Fielder has appeared in at least 157 games every season. He has played in all 162 games twice. Over six full seasons, the guy has proven to be durable.

The Nationals already have first baseman Adam LaRoche under contract. They believe Morse could capably fill the job in the future.

There is steady, however, and there is spectacular. Fielder is the latter.

Of course, signing Fielder would be expensive. Knowing Scott Boras, Fielder’s agent, as well as I do, he’s probably seeking an average of at least $25 million per season.

The Lerners have the money. They’ll pay Werth $83 million in the final four seasons of his contract. They offered starter Zack Greinke a five-year, $100 million extension as part of a proposed trade last year.

Obviously, the Lerners could come up with many reasons why they shouldn’t sign Fielder. There are just better ones why they should.

For Jason Reid’s previous columns go to postsports.com

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