The majority of the baseball world had deemed the Washington Nationals the odds-on favorite to land first baseman Prince Fielder, the kind of free agent slugger who could transform them from a team on the rise to a contender that had arrived. And then Tuesday afternoon came, and the Detroit Tigers made a stealth bid, one the Nationals had no intention of approaching.
The Tigers swooped in and claimed Fielder with a contract, according to widespread reports, worth $214 million over nine years, pending a physical. When the winter began, Detroit had no room for Fielder, with Miguel Cabrera at first base and Victor Martinez at designated hitter. But then Martinez tore his anterior cruciate ligament, and the Tigers offered a massive sum for baseball’s premier remaining free agent.
Nationals ownership met with Fielder once and continued discussing him with Scott Boras, the representative for Fielder and a gaggle of prominent Nationals. Could they have lured Fielder with a sizable offer before Martinez’s injury made the Tigers a factor? The Nationals likely would not have met Boras’s price, anyway. They were wary of offering more than six or seven years, according to one person familiar with the Nationals’ thinking, and Boras believed from the start he could get Fielder a contract of $200 million.
The Nationals will be content to play 2012 with Adam LaRoche at first base, with Michael Morse, now slated to play left field, in the wings if LaRoche’s recovery from labrum surgery falters. The Nationals will pay LaRoche $8 million this year, the final guaranteed season of his two-year contract. Last week, the Nationals signed Morse, a breakout star in 2011, to a two-year, $10.5 million extension.
Fielder would have represented a significant upgrade, which is no offense to LaRoche or Morse. The rare player who became a free agent at 27, Fielder has hit 230 home runs in six-plus seasons, including a career-high 50 in 2007. He finished third in the MVP voting last season, hitting 38 homers with a .299 batting average, .415 on-base percentage and a .566 slugging percentage. For his age, he ranks among some of the best sluggers in major league history.
“I think everybody wanted [Fielder’s] bat in the lineup,” Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said. “He’s a lethal weapon. I was perfectly comfortable having Adam LaRoche, having his bat in the lineup, having the nimble feet he offers around the bag. I was not pushing for the club to break the bank. I think the club was right. If it was a short-term deal, that’s one thing. Long-term commitment, really, I think we have some other issues that are more pressing.”
The Nationals’ best player agreed with his manager. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman hoped the Nationals would sign Fielder, but he felt comfortable with LaRoche — “he doesn’t get as much credit as he should,” Zimmerman said — and supported the front office, both in its prudent tact with Fielder and their transactions this offseason.
“I think they went after a guy they wanted, and they had a line where they were going to stop, and they didn’t go any further,” Zimmerman said. “[General Manager] Mike [Rizzo] and the Lerners, they have a very definite plan of what they want to do.
“I wanted [Fielder] on our team as much as all the other 29 teams wanted him. The most important message is, hopefully this doesn’t overshadow all the other good things they’ve done this winter.
“To be involved, and to be one of these clubs players are considering, is a positive thing for our organization. The fact that top-tier free agents are heavily considering us is a huge step forward for us.”
In the end, although Johnson was not directly involved in any negotiations, he believes the Nationals’ interest in Fielder may have been overstated.
“I think a lot of it was Boras playing everybody,” Johnson said. “There were a lot of teams — and I think we’re one of them — that never made an offer. I could be wrong. It’s over. I’m happy it’s over. I like to project what we’re having for spring training. I hope he’s happy. We’ve got enough to do the job. We just have to go do it.”
The Nationals do not have to worry about LaRoche, with his carefree temperament, having his feelings hurt by the pursuit of Fielder.
“I can’t say I cared about it,” LaRoche said. “I didn’t lose any sleep over it. It would have obviously been a disappointment. I think everybody knows we’re turning the corner right now, and I wanted to be a part of that.
“I understand why stuff like that happens. I wouldn’t have held any grudges. I would have totally understood the business decision. Then again, it’s fixing to get really exciting in D.C., and I want to be a part of it.”
With less than a month before pitchers and catchers report for spring training, the Nationals’ next order of business may be signing Zimmerman to an extension that keeps him in Washington for the rest of his career. Zimmerman reiterated his desire to stay in Washington, saying he would be open to structuring a contract that, while fair in price, would allow the Nationals to pursue future free agents.
“I don’t think [the pursuit of Fielder] really affects me one way or another,” Zimmerman said. “We’ve kind of talked the whole time and agreed both sides would be creative. We want to do a deal so it helps me and the team at the same time, so they can go out and sign guys like Prince Fielder.
“The reason I want to be here, I’ve been here for the bad times, and I hope to be here for the good times. If they’re going to have a couple guys that are going to make a ton of money and make it so they can’t sign other guys, that’s not what I want.”
Zimmerman has said previously he would almost certainly test free agency if he reached spring training of 2013, his final season under contract, without agreeing on an extension with the Nationals. The current window for negotiating, though, could close soon. Zimmerman said he prefers to table any talks once spring training begins, not wanting his contract status to become a distraction.
“I think it’s unfair to my teammates for that to garner any attention during the season,” Zimmerman said. “Once spring training comes, it’s time for us to play baseball. If there’s articles, or if there’s people asking me every day how much money I want to make, that’s rather unfair to the other guys around me who are working just as hard to achieve that goal of winning. It’s got to get done by spring training.”