Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

Prince Fielder’s price is not right for Nationals right now

Christian Petersen/GETTY IMAGES - Prince Fielder of the Brewers gestures after he hit a double in the top of the fourth inning against the Cardinals during Game 4 of the National League Championship Series.

Who wants Prince Fielder? Right now, nobody does, not at Albert Pujols prices anyway. The non-pursuit of the young free agent first baseman who averages 40 homers has been the shock of the baseball offseason.

In an era when true sluggers get more rare every year, Fielder, 27, is on a Hall of Fame path so far. Some team may get a surprisingly decent though dangerous deal soon. Could or even should that club be the Nationals, who offered Mark Teixeira $180 million for eight years just three years ago?

What’s the right price to pay for a 113-RBI-per-year 275-pounder who made 15 errors last year? What’s the risk in a star who had a similarly rotund father who hit 95 homers at ages 26-27 but never had a good year after 32?

For the Nats, is any price the right price when you already have a decent first baseman (Adam LaRoche) and a logical replacement (Michael Morse) and your real and pressing need is actually a leadoff center fielder?

When Pujols signed for $254 million for 10 years, baseball assumed the news was good for Fielder, who was four years younger and one level lower as a hitter. Now, it looks like Prince should’ve stayed in Milwaukee, where he was loved and comfortable and might have gotten as much as he’ll bag now.

The teams rumored as possible destinations for Fielder — because they’re the only ones that may have enough money and no expensive star first baseman already in place — are the Rangers, Mariners, Cubs, Blue Jays, Orioles and Nationals.

How nice. Except all of them say they don’t want Prince, or at least not at the $200-million-plus price that came into play when Pujols signed.

We know when this logjam will break. The Rangers face a Jan. 18 deadline to sign Yu Darvish, presumably for more than $100 million. If they agree to terms (highly likely), that probably takes Texas out of the picture. But if Darvish goes back to Japan, Texas will be all over Fielder to keep pace with the Albert Angels of Los Angeles. Few think Texas will spend $300 million for both Darvish and Fielder; they’ve already been to two World Series.

What’s left? Not much, really. The Cubs and M’s have made it clear that they’re rebuilding, so no thanks. The Cubs are more likely to trade Matt Garza for prospects than sign Fielder. The M’s offense is so awful Prince would get about one pitch to hit per week. Both teams’ GMs have openly ridiculed reports that they would pursue Fielder aggressively.

The Blue Jays (81-81), with new blood, and the O’s may get in the game, but both indicate it won’t be near current $200 million speculation. Besides, royalty doesn’t want to play for Peter Angelos’s little shop of horrors in Baltimore.

Agent Scott Boras had better find one of his famous “mystery teams” soon. The Prince market has softened so quickly that this week’s flash has Fielder, to save face, considering a three-year deal at a Pujols-per-annum, then trying the free agent waters again at age 30. Boras quickly branded that speculation as inaccurate and “delusional.”

The Nats aren’t going to give Boras stalking-horse leverage as they did with Teixeira. The desperate Nats of the Jayson Werthoverpay a year ago are gone, too. After the Gio Gonzalez trade, they project to be solidly above .500. GM Mike Rizzo and Manager Davey Johnson will hit “repeat” any time you want to hear their views on their mob scene at first base. Prince who?

The Nats’ biggest problem with putting Fielder at the center of their universe is much more fundamental than “who’s on first” over the next couple of years. Fielder could eliminate flexibility at multiple positions for the rest of the decade. What if sixth overall draft pick Anthony Rendon, who broke Lance Berkman’s records at Rice, tears up the minors? Where do you put him? What if Ryan Zimmerman signs an extension but, someday, needs to move to first base for whatever reason? What about Werth in his dotage?

Here’s the kicker. What happens when the Nats have Bryce Harper, Morse and Werth all in the lineup? It’s coming. What if none can handle center field? If Fielder’s at first, where do you put ’em? Not enough chairs.

One obvious solution for the low-budget Nats, who lost out to the Marlins on their offseason prime-target Mark Buehrle last month, is to wait on a big spend until Michael Bourn and B.J. Upton are free agents next year.

Or, if the Nats choose to be more active, they could not only finish the Zimmerman extension far past ’13, but, with room to spare, also sign Cuban center fielder Yoenis Cespedes; he’ll get (anybody’s guess) perhaps $40 million soon for what amounts to a six-year contract. The Nats scouted him 19 times. What did they see? The Nats offered Cuban lefty Aroldis Chapman $25 million not long ago. Position players’ futures are easier to project.

The problem with applying strict logic in valuing stars such as Fielder is that it fails to measure their impact on team psychology, total team revenues and the ability to ride a core of stars deep into October. What price would you put on the dynamism of a Nationals lineup that, out to ’16 at least, would include Fielder, Zimmerman (after extension), Harper, Werth, Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos? As the 96-win Brewers showed, Fielder brings charisma and confidence that can increase the sum of a team’s parts.

To a hypothetical team, Fielder might rationally be valued at more than the seven-year, $126 million deal that Werth received but less than what the Nats offered Teixeira. But the Nats aren’t a fantasy team. Hard as it is to fathom, the Nationals have probably reached a point where they’d be wise not to chase Fielder at all and only consider catching him if he falls — a lot.

The Nationals will need to spend a lot of money on Zimmerman and probably a center fielder, too. But, beyond that, it’s hard to concoct a flashy wish list that would even begin to strain the team’s growing resources. That alone demonstrates what monumental changes, almost all of them for the better, have swept the Washington franchise since last New Year’s Day.

 
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