Should Washington have serious interest in Prince Fielder?

Update, 9:58 PM: Mark Zuckerman now has a new post up addressing the issue. He gets a little more in depth about where the rumors have been stemming from but ultimately comes to a similar conclusion as I do. His piece is worth a read as well.

Going back to early November, if not even before, there has been a certain persistence to rumors linking the Washington Nationals to free agent first baseman Prince Fielder. The discussions are usually instigated thanks to one of the more prominent media members – such as Ken Rosenthal, Buster Olney, and Jon Heyman – but all generally follow the same course. There hasn’t been much attention given to the subject by most of the Nationals blogs that I follow and we haven’t really touched on the subject here at DoD. However, as rumors started to swirl again today, it seems as good an opportunity as any to take a look at whether there is any substance to all of the speculation.

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For starters, however, it is worth reiterating the stance that the Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo has taken publicly on the subject over the course of the offseason. Rizzo has remained consistent this winter, repeatedly expressing confidence that the team will go into the 2012 season with Adam LaRoche as their first baseman. LaRoche, of course, is returning from an injury that limited him to just 43 games (.172/.288/.258 in 177 plate appearances) during the 2011 season. When healthy, he’s a career .267/.337/.478 hitter who’s capable of 25 HR and 85-90 RBI a season. He is entering the final season of a two year contract that the two sides agreed to prior to the 2011 season. He’ll earn $8 Million this season. Washington holds an option for 2013 but it seems highly unlikely that they’ll exercise it. Health is a big question mark but the organization seems set on entering the season with LaRoche as their primary option.

Fielder is clearly a superior option than LaRoche would be at first base, you’ll get no arguments on that here. Adding Fielder into the Nationals lineup would also be a clear upgrade, likely boosting the organization’s chances at finishing above .500 in 2012 or potentially even challenging for a playoff position. He instantly makes the middle of the lineup more formidable, likely sliding into the cleanup spot behind Ryan Zimmerman and in front of Michael Morse. Defensively Fielder is stronger than many give him credit for. Having a strong defender at first can also have a positive carry over effect on the rest of the infield.

There are clear reasons that certainly favor making such a move. However, the concern I have surrounding the idea of the Nationals signing Fielder is two-fold.

First, there is the obvious factor that bringing Fielder to Washington is going to require a major payroll commitment. Entering the offseason it was expected that the market for Fielder wouldn’t fully materialize until after Albert Pujols‘ situation is resolved. Fielder and his agent, Scott Boras, were believed to be seeking a ten year, $200 Million contract at the time. Sources seem to indicate that they now are looking to come closer to the $254 Million commitment Pujols received from the Angels.

At this point in time, I’m not certain that Fielder is going to find the ten year commitment that he seeks. And I don’t think that is in his best interest at this point anyways. Fielder won’t turn 28 until early May. Should he be agreeable to a shorter term deal he could conceivably re-enter the free agent market again while in his early 30’s. At that point there could be a broader need for a player of his abilities, a wider range of possible suitors for his services, and potentially another significant pay day that he’ll be able to cash in on.

There was some speculation a few weeks ago that Boras had been telling teams that Fielder would consider a deal in the neighborhood of three or four years, as long as the average annual value exceeds that of Pujols’ contract, $25.2 Million. As expected, Boras quickly shot down the notion as soon as it was published, but the idea is not necessarily a poor one.

I think a more realistic option, however, would be for Fielder to find a deal similar to the five year, $125 Million contract extension that the Phillies gave to Ryan Howard last Spring. Howard could have been a free agent this winter as well, but turned down the potentially larger pay day (his playoff knee injury notwithstanding) to resign early and continue his career in Philadelphia. The terms of the deal, however, could be of interest to Fielder. It would represent a significant pay day today. He’ll be able to enter the free agent market again, after his age 32 season, at which point he could very likely receive another $100+ Million contract on the open market.

Now, it seems safe to say that most would view a five year, $125 Million commitment as a much more palatable choice than a ten year, $250 Million commitment. It’s probably safe to say that the Lerner family would much rather that the conversation involved those numbers. I have to say that I would, as well. But, that still doesn’t fully address the problem at hand with the entire idea – that signing Fielder is a significant financial commitment and for the Nationals, it’s really more of a luxury than a necessity.

As I mentioned earlier, my concerns about signing Fielder are two-fold. The second part of that is just how Fielder fits into the existing Nationals roster beyond the 2012 season. He’s limited to first base and the Nationals don’t have the designated hitter at their disposal.

Most expectations are that after the 2012 season the organization will let LaRoche walk, instead filling the first base void in 2013 with Morse. One problem that will eventually need to be addressed is the fact that Morse will also be a free agent after the 2013 season, meaning the team will need to sign him to an extension if he is going to man the position for them for years to come. Also a possibility is eventually handing the position to Chris Marrero, who’ll miss at least the first half of the 2012 season with a hamstring injury. Beyond that, the next best internal candidate would be Tyler Moore. It’s too early to tell if or when he’ll be a viable option, however.

If the Nationals were to sign Fielder to a deal beyond two years in length, it would throw the futures of each of the above players into question. Morse would remain in left field beyond the 2012 season in such a scenario. He’s not a liability defensively, but it seems evident that first base is where he is better suited. If he is going to have a place with the Nationals long term this is a factor that ultimately is going to come under some consideration. Marrero and Moore are both unproven, so perhaps blocking them defensively is less of a concern.

However, just as the futures of Morse, Marrero, and Moore are important, so too is that of Fielder. As I mentioned before, he’s a relatively strong defender at first base but scouts have long had concerns about how late into his career he’ll be able to handle playing the field. Fielder’s not your typical slim, athletic type and concerns about his longevity are real. He may be best suited to eventually move into a designated hitter role later in his career – another reason in favor of him “settling” for a deal in the neighborhood of five years, rather than waiting out that ten year contract he’s been seeking. The Nationals should be worried about handing Fielder a deal that might extend beyond when he’s a serviceable defender.

In addition, signing Fielder would almost certainly spell the end to LaRoche’s tenure in Washington. The organization would look to trade him in the event of such a signing. The return would not likely be anything significant, though that seems secondary at this point in time.

Perhaps my concerns from a financial point of view are a little overblown. The Lerner family is perhaps one of the wealthiest ownership groups in all of baseball and they have long stated their willingness to spend once the team is ready to contend. Last winter’s signing of Jayson Werth was supposed to be the first step towards that point and signing Fielder would certainly help the situation. But is it enough? And would signing Fielder to a Howard-like contract prevent the organization from retaining it’s own players? Zimmerman will also be a free agent after the 2013 season and there has been speculation for months that he and the team could discuss a contract extension before that time comes. The Lerners may have enough money to sign Fielder and later extend Zimmerman, but will they be willing to authorize such an expenditure?

Bottom line, signing Fielder would absolutely change the Washington Nationals fate in 2012 and beyond. He’d be a clear upgrade over LaRoche, but whether or not a potential deal is worthwhile all depends on what the contract terms ultimately end up looking like. If Fielder is agreeable to a deal more like the extension Howard received, then maybe there’s something to this idea. If he remains insistent on a Pujols-like contract, then I’d have to guess that he and Boras are more likely to find such an offer elsewhere on the free agent market.

Tags: Chris Marrero Michael Morse Prince Fielder Ryan Zimmerman Tyler Moore Washington Nationals

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