The Washington Nationals were looking to make a huge splash this offseason and despite being nearly two months into the process, they still have a chance to do so with first baseman Prince Fielder. It sounds great on paper that a 27-year old slugger in the prime of his career could be the centerpiece of a team that is clearly on the rise. But the game is played on the field and signing Cecil’s son would be a huge mistake in the long-term.
Fielder is looking for a deal that would keep him with one team until his mid-30s, so at least a contract of six years. In a stunning decline in home runs throughout the league, sources of power are more valued than ever and Fielder would fit the billing of a power threat every time he stepped up to the plate. However, the Nationals do have a player making nearly $20 million a season in Jayson Werth and with Scott Boras as his agent, Prince will definitely be looking in that range. The idea is tempting because a lineup featuring Werth, Fielder, and Ryan Zimmerman could possibly give the Nationals the best middle-of-the-lineup in the NL East.
Ever since Mike Rizzo took over as general manager, he’s emphasized winning baseball games with fundamentals, meaning quality at-bats, solid pitching, and efficient defense. Despite his last name, Fielder is one of the worst defenders in baseball at first base and the main reason why the team let Adam Dunn walk after the 2010 campaign (more on Adam Dunn in a bit). The Nationals lost about seven games in my estimation a couple of years ago because Dunn wasn’t able to make a play that nearly every other first baseman would have made. Fielder isn’t much better and belongs in the American League as a designated hitter. Plus, Adam LaRoche, who is off shoulder surgery, has a year remaining on a contract that owes him $8 million for 2012. LaRoche had his power sapped because of the injury, but I believe he’ll be back to being a threat for 25 home runs and 85 RBI. Not many players are more reliable with the glove at his position, either.
Dunn raised a huge red flag this season after signing a 4-year, $56M deal with the Chicago White Sox. His role was to be the designated hitter and once a week, spell Paul Konerko at first. In a homer-happy ballpark with the wind swirling out towards the outfield, Dunn had one of the worst offensive seasons in baseball history, hitting .159 with 11 homers. That was during his age 31 season and he and Fielder are around the same height and weight. It’s very alarming for such a good player to start to decline that quickly. If the same thing happens to Prince, the Nationals would have to owe the lefty upwards of $40M for two seasons, minimum, and the production wouldn’t be there. There have been contracts throughout the majors, having former stars being vastly overpaid during their aging seasons, notably Carlos Lee of the Astros and Todd Helton of the Rockies. Let another team make the huge mistake (pun intended) and watch them suffer.
The most significant reason why the Nats should stay away from Fielder is because eventually, they’ll have to pony up the money to keep the young stars they already have. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman sees his current deal run out after the 2013 season and being the face of the franchise, must be re-signed to keep fans coming to Nationals Park. He and his agent, Casey Close, won’t be as generous as the 5-year, $45 million Z-Pack signed for in 2009, so look for something hovering around $20 million per year. Zimmerman, also 27, plays a premiere position and is a huge asset on offense, defense, and as a leader. Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann are both rising right-handed starters that won’t be eligible for arbitration forever, which means they’ll need long-term deals as well. Closer Drew Storen is in the same boat and then there’s that Bryce Harper guy. If the Nats sign Fielder, you’re looking at a payroll upwards of $110 million for the 2014 season, something not too attractive in a medium market like Washington.
People have their doubts about LaRoche returning and making a significant impact, but let’s not forget prospect Chris Marrero had his moments last year when thrown into the fire. He needs to work on plate discipline, but his defense looked very good and the youngster deserves a chance after five years in the system. Michael Morse, who is making the move to left-field in 2012, can also play first, so it’s not like the cupboard is bare for Washington.
I am a big fan of Prince Fielder because there’s no doubt in my mind that he has natural strength and isn’t using performance-enhancing drugs. His laid-back character is appealing, but isn’t extreme enough to make it annoying. But now more than ever, baseball is a business and teams won’t win games just because they have the highest character guys. If the Nats had a team that could win now, I’d say sacrifice a potential disaster a few years down the road and go for it. However, it’s not the case and the Miami Marlins got significantly better, so the Nats could very well finish this year in the division basement again. Rizzo needs to do what’s best for this team to keep them winning at a consistent rate and having dead weight at a hefty price will only bring this team down and slow their momentum.