Prince Fielder deal could cement Nationals-Scott Boras marriage, for better or worse

Thomas Boswell
Columnist January 13, 2012

If the Washington Nationals sign Prince Fielder, but don’t extend the contract of Ryan Zimmerman, whose deal runs out after two more seasons, then by opening day 2014 almost the entire Washington starting lineup — seven players — might be clients of agent Scott Boras.

These pieces would fit together ideally, putting each player in his natural place in the batting order and in his preferred defensive position, while creating a balanced lineup that combines speed, power and hitting from both sides of the plate. So many of the players would be young that the total Nats payroll might remain at mere mid-market levels. And with just a few sane contract extensions to non-Boras pitchers, this entire team could stay together through 2017 and perhaps go to multiple World Series.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

But Boras would have as much influence on a franchise as any agent since Mark (“The Power of Nice”) Shapiro represented the large majority of the best Orioles players during their two-pennant 1977-83 run. Team Scott is an elegant possibility, and might have results just as excellent; but Boras could also loom over a club with an owner then almost 90, an unproven heir and a general manager whose contract ends after 2015.

Picture this lineup — with Boras’s clients in bold. If every Nat played to current “projections,” this actually would be the most likely 2014 team.

1. Brian Goodwin, a first-round draft pick last year, or Michael Bourn , a free agent next winter who has gold gloves and base-stealing titles, is in center field. Both are left-handed-hitting speedsters and natural leadoff men.

2. Anthony Rendon, paid $7.2 million to sign, takes over third base from Zimmerman. A stat clone of Lance Berkman in college at Rice, Rendon is projected as a .300 hitter, Gold Glove candidate and good No. 2 hitter early in his career.

3-4. Bryce Harper and Prince Fielder , like Ruth-Gehrig, or, okay, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, are back-to-back tape-measure lefty sluggers to anchor the order. Fielder, comfortable at cleanup, protects young Harper.

5. Jayson Werth , then age 35, moves to left field so Harper can play right field, where his value as a free agent someday will be greater.

6. Danny Espinosa moves to shortstop, his natural position, improving the team’s defensive reliability and making him a more valuable (read: expensive) player.

7. Wilson Ramos, catcher, may feel a little lonely in the locker room, but maybe he can find a Nat-appropriate agent.

8. A Boras-client second baseman to be named later, perhaps taken with the Nats’ top choice in this year’s draft, because the team’s top three picks last year were all Boras clients. Or Ian Desmond could stay at shortstop and Espinosa at second.

9. Stephen Strasburg . You’ve heard of him.

By 2014, or before, the Nats also assume that 6-foot-9 Alex Meyer, a right-handed pitcher who has touched 100 mph, will either be in their starting rotation — with Jordan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez and perhaps lefty Matt Purke, or the back of the bullpen.

You can bet Boras is aware of these possibilities. He’s far-sighted and, as he should, always pursues the interests of his clients and himself. At times, his strategic thinking makes it seem he lives in a baseball world of checkers while his first move is P-K4. The enormous contracts he negotiates can help build franchises into winners, like the recent Detroit Tigers, or hamstring them, as Alex Rodriguez’s $250 million deal in Texas weighed down ex-owner Tom Hicks’s Rangers for years. It often takes years to figure out which it is.

Right now, Fielder rumors, which the Nats downplay, keep surfacing like clouds in a clear sky. Stare at them long enough as they shift shape and you can imagine almost anything. History says most scuttlebutt starts with Boras, as he “builds a market,” some of it imaginary, for his client.

As those who run the Nats consider whether and how seriously to engage Fielder in what has been an exceptionally soft market for the slugger, they need to look as far into the future as Boras. Would the Nats be chasing a daydream, a nightmare or the possibility of both?

Many Nats’ fans hope that a Fielder deal and a $100-plus-million Zimmerman extension could be compatible. It’s conceivable, but also a stretch. Nats payroll has averaged $65 million the last three years. By 2014, they would be paying just three players (Fielder, Werth and Zimmerman) more than $60 million a year, all of them through 2017 and some beyond.

Even Fielder-signs-cheap fantasies don’t go below past free agent contracts or extensions worth $152 million to $164 million for first basemen Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Gonzalez and Ryan Howard. If over $200 million is foolish, under $150 million probably is, too. “Creative” deals of shorter duration? Unlikely, but you can’t judge what doesn’t exist yet.

If Fielder arrives in D.C., crowds and TV ratings may skyrocket. That could change the financial picture and smooth a new five-year deal that’s due this year with MASN that might double the current $28 million local-TV rate.

Still, the gap between the higher-spending teams and what the Nats have been willing to spend is vast. Just four teams had payrolls over $140 million in 2011: the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies and Angels. Over the past three years, just nine teams have averaged more than $100 million in payroll. Even hugely popular teams such as the Cardinals and Giants aren’t among them. Are the Nats, viewed optimistically, going to move above those teams?

Years ago, some of Shapiro’s Orioles took less pay or structured deals so they could stay together and beat the Yanks. In contrast, almost every elite Boras client rejects early extensions, goes free agent the first day possible and stays in town only for top dollar.

If Fielder should come to Washington, it would be tons of fun. But a contract as big as Prince wants causes other dominoes to fall. By Opening Day of ’14, the Nats announcer might say, “Ladies and gentleman, your Washington Borases.” That could be great. Or it could get messy.

For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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