In December 2010, the Nationals stunned the baseball industry when, coming off 298 losses in three seasons, they landed Jayson Werth with a seven-year, $126 million contract. They christened their free-spending plan to lure free agents as “Phase 2” – and it was nearly even more stunning.
Sunday morning, Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre confirmed a years-old rumor, a near-miss that would have changed the course of Washington’s franchise: he nearly chose the Nationals over the Rangers as a free agent the same winter the Nationals signed Werth. With his agent Scott Boras, who also represents Werth, Beltre met that winter with General Manager Mike Rizzo and Principal Owner Ted Lerner in Los Angeles.
“Yeah,” Beltre said, standing next to his locker in the visitors’ clubhouse at Nationals Park. “It happened.”
And how close did he coming to signing with the Nationals?
“Close,” Beltre said. “Close.
“At that time, I was just listening for offers, to see what was out there. I met with Rizzo back in L.A. We talked. I asked questions, he answered. He asked questions, I answered. And it got close, but it didn’t work out.”
Beltre recalled the discussion as “definitely a good meeting.” When asked if the Nationals made him an official offer, Beltre chuckled and said, “I don’t remember.”
Beltre, now 35, eventually signed a five-year, $80 million contract with the Rangers. It remains unclear if the Nationals chose between Werth and Beltre, or if they wanted both and got outbid by Texas. Beltre said he didn’t know, but that the meeting happened before the Nationals signed Werth. He also mentioned he and Werth are friends from their time together as young players with the Dodgers.
Werth has helped make the Nationals a credible organization and, when healthy, has been among the best hitters in the National League since 2012. Since the moment he signed with the Rangers, Beltre has been one of the best players in baseball, burnishing a career that may land him in the Hall of Fame.
In three-plus seasons in Texas, Beltre has hit .311/.356/.534 with 103 homers while making two all-star teams and winning two Gold Gloves. According to FanGraphs.com, Beltre has accumulated 17.7 wins above replacement since 2011, 11th in the majors.
The Nationals’ pursuit of Beltre raises the fascinating question of how he would have fit on the roster. At the time, Ryan Zimmerman remained one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball. But they may have made room for Beltre by moving Zimmerman across the diamond to first base.
“I don’t remember all the details,” Beltre said. “It was just a meeting to see where I’m at. I don’t want to say something I don’t remember.”
Zimmerman is currently making the transition to left field; his position switch could have happened three years ago. The Nationals had just lost Adam Dunn, and they did not sign Adam LaRoche until much later in the winter. And so they had the roster space to make Zimmerman a first baseman way back then.
Another question: If the Nationals signed Beltre to a major contract, would the Nationals have still had room in the budget to sign Zimmerman to his $100 million extension in the spring of 2012? How much different would the Nationals look had Beltre signed up to play in Washington?
In the end, Beltre signed with the Rangers, and he played in Nationals Park, the place he nearly called home, for the first time this weekend.
“I’m happy where I’m at,” Beltre said. “I think I made a good decision, even though we all know the success the Nationals had the last couple years, and the team they still have, a young team. I’m happy where I’m at.”