The Nationals had been deemed the front-runner to sign Fielder until the Tigers’ stunning move. Rizzo fully admitted the Nationals wanted Fielder, but said the Nationals had a firm notion of what they wanted to pay Fielder, and once negotiations crossed that point, they backed away.
“All along we were satisfied and happy with the position of first base with what we’ve got,” Rizzo said. “Does Prince Fielder help any club he’s with? There’s no question about it. Were we interested in him? There’s no question about it. We were in the negotiations until it didn’t make sense for us to be in the negotiations any longer, so we had to back out. Prince is a terrific player, and he got paid like the superstar that he is. Congratulations to the Detroit Tigers. They just got a lot better.”
Rizzo declined to specify the Nationals’ limit, but a person familiar with the negotiations said Tuesday the Nationals would not offer more than six years. Rizzo also declined to reveal whether the Nationals made a formal offer.
But the Nationals had extensive discussions with Fielder and his representative, Scott Boras. The Nationals met in person with Fielder once and met on several other occasions with Boras.
“I felt that we were players,” Rizzo said. “We were being aggressive in the negotiations. I felt that we were players in the process, but it’s an unpredictable process and you don’t know what deals are out there and you don’t know what is fact and what is fiction.
“We felt comfortable to the fact that we were in the game and, again, I felt very comfortable that we had parameters set in my mind, and those were comfortable parameters. And if we couldn’t get a deal done there, we weren’t going to get a deal done, and I was comfortable with that we had some good options already available to us.
“I had parameters set in my mind with what my threshold was for the player. And once it exceeded that threshold, we felt that if the market didn’t come back to us, we were out of it.”
The Nationals took a wholly different approach last offseason, when they signed Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract, a deal they also negotiated with Boras. The Nationals happily and defiantly gave Werth a contract well above market value, which Rizzo and other officials referred to as the opening of “Phase 2,” a strategy of placing big-ticket free agents around their young core.
This offseason, the Nationals have seemingly left behind that “Phase 2” way of thinking. They fell short with their offer to Mark Buehrle, and with Fielder they stood firm in their valuation.
Wednesday, Rizzo explained the different approaches. When the Nationals signed Werth, they had lost nearly 300 games in three seasons and believed they had to overpay to attract him. Now, they seem themselves as a team on the rise that free agents want to play for. They also have Adam LaRoche and Michael Morse as first basemen, making Fielder a luxury more than a need in their eyes.
“We feel that we no longer have to beg and overpay for players to come to us,” Rizzo said. “We feel that this is becoming an attractive place for major league players to play. Jayson Werth’s signing has a lot to do with that. We acquired a major free agent to come here with a 69-win team. We’ve performed much better and shown that the organization is in much better shape.
“We felt that, obviously, Prince Fielder makes anybody a better team, including us, so we went to where we felt comfortable and that made sense for us to go. When it exceeded where we were at, we had to back out.”
When the offseason began, the Nationals had no intention of pursuing either Albert Pujols or Fielder, the two biggest free agents available. But as December wore on, the front office and team ownership changed its stance and decided it may have a chance to sign one of the best sluggers in baseball.
“It’s very unpredictable,” Rizzo said. “We thought we saw an opportunity to really improve ourselves, to accelerate our improvement curve by the signing of a player we thought was a good fit for us. We loved the player. The process that went through the winter, it varied from what we thought we were going to do at the beginning of the offseason. But we thought it was a good opportunity to really accelerate our program and take us to a different level.”