Theo Epstein continued to work his magic with the Chicago Cubs, acquiring Padres first baseman Anthony Rizzo for struggling pitcher Andrew Cashner on Friday. This fills a void at first on the north side of the Windy City and also ending their pursuit of free agent Prince Fielder. Now that the Cubs are eliminated from the process, the Washington Nationals are more and more likely to sign the slugger who’s spent his entire career with a Cubs rival, the Milwaukee Brewers. The question remains: is there even any competition?
Besides landing in the nation’s capital, the only other teams I seriously see going after Fielder are the Orioles and the Mariners, two franchises desperately needing a splash. Ideally, both squads are in the American League where the designated hitter rule is used. Fielder, despite being only 27, is a career DH because of his massive frame and poor defense. The Blue Jays and the Rangers have been mentioned, but I believe those chances are basically 0% he’ll end up there. So, let’s look at the other two competitors the Nats are facing:
The Nats’ Beltway rivals haven’t had a winning record since 1997 and even signing Fielder wouldn’t give them a good shot to end that streak this season. Mark Reynolds, who started last year at the hot corner, finished the year at first and that is their plan if they choose to stand pat. Prince would be the DH and occasionally spell Reynolds at first. They moved Reynolds to first because of his incredible throwing error total and to give Chris Davis a chance. Odds are, the Orioles would have to wow agent Scott Boras with an offer because Baltimore isn’t winning anytime soon. Camden Yards is one of the nicest places in the league to see a baseball game and it’s really sad seeing so many empty seats night in and night out. They have a nice core of players, but Brian Roberts is always hurt and Adam Jones is rumored to be on the trade block.
Back in my childhood, it was a disappointing season if the Mariners didn’t win 90 games with players such as Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez. In 2011, it’s a shock if the team isn’t eliminated from playoff contending by the end of August. Just for fun, those same positions last year were occupied by Chone Figgins, Franklin Gutierrez, and Jack Cust, not exactly a winning combination. The Mariners whiffed on their last free agent prize, a 5-year, $64M deal for Adrian Beltre, who’s power was sapped by spacious Safeco Field. The M’s aren’t even close to contending in the tough American League and are lucky that Oakland won’t have enough players to start the season since they’re all being traded. A third place finish in the division is possible this year, but is it worth ponying up around $200M? Again, he’d be the designated hitter and since there’s no first baseman locking down the position in Seattle, it’ll probably be a permanent role.
Some people around baseball are comparing the Prince Fielder bonanza to the Mark Teixeira derby during the 2008-09 offseason. Ironically enough, the Nationals were heavy suitors in that as well, considering Teixeira was raised in Maryland. He signed with the Yankees for 8 years and $180M, a similar deal Fielder and Boras are looking to get. Big sluggers like Fielder (weighing at least 275) tend to break down earlier than most players, so probably in the middle of that contract. Teixeira has already seen his batting average take a big drop, hitting only .252 the past two years combined. Tex’s contract isn’t even halfway over yet (entering Year 4), so there are red flags. Keep in mind that the Nationals backloaded the contract of Jayson Werth, owing around $20M per year for the final few years of his deal. That means, if Fielder does sign with the Nats, the deal should be frontloaded to balance things out a little bit. I’m still against the Fielder signing.
I’ve said before that I think Mike Rizzo gets too much credit for what he’s done with this team due to the two “once in a lifetime” talents he selected with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. If last year was any indication of what Werth will do in a Nats uniform, what will happen when Fielder inevitably becomes 2011 Adam Dunn after say, the 2014 contract? And who says that Fielder will even be motivated after being free agent-eligible for the first time after breaking the bank? The reward could be perennial contenders in the senior circuit, but it’s too much of a risk.
Basically what this means for the Nats is that they can afford to sit back and wait with Prince. See if the Rizzo camp could lower the contract a little bit and include more performance-incentive bonuses instead of yearly salary. A 2-through-6 of Michael Morse, Fielder, Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, and Bryce Harper (in some order) would keep any pitching coach up at night, but again, he has bust written all over him. I’d rather see the team save money for Michael Bourn after the 2012 season. This team has lacked a lead-off hitter for a long time and Bourn would fit that mold perfectly.