Many Nationals fans might be disappointed that the team has missed out on signing free-agent first baseman Prince Fielder. After all, at first blush, who wouldn’t want to see a left-handed slugger who’s hit as many as 50 home runs taking aim at the right field porch at Nationals Park? The team has been missing that since Adam Dunn left for Chicago.
With his power and plate presence, Fielder is, no doubt, very good. Maybe even good enough to be worth the roughly $23.8 million a year the Detroit Tigers are reportedly going to be paying him. He might be worth that much for three or four years, but will there still be a payoff after seven, eight or even nine years, which seems to be what put the Tigers over the top in the bidding war? Let’s face it, at 5-11 and 275 pounds (at least that what’s listed on MLB.com), it’s easy to see what he has in common with his father, Cecil Fielder, who was known as “Big Daddy.” There’s always the risk that he could eat his way out of the lineup, and Nats fans would be comparing him with Dmitri Young, rather than Dunn.
But there are more practical reasons why Nats fans might actually feel good about the team missing out on Fielder, and as Ken Rosenthal wrote yesterday morning on FOXSports.com, some in the Nationals front office would have preferred it that way. The development leaves Adam LaRoche, who is superior to Fielder defensively, as the regular first baseman. LaRoche’s bat suffered last season because of a torn labrum, and he played only 43 games. With surgery, the injury and LaRoche’s hitting problems are supposedly corrected, and if he returns to form, the Nats have him at first base and Michael Morse in left field. If LaRoche’s swing is still not in full form, then the team can move Morse back to first, where he had a career season last year.
The Nats also want to keep some cash on hand for Ryan Zimmerman, who is in talks with the team on a contract extension.
With a first baseman penciled in and a backup plan in place, the Nats also have the flexibility look within the organization for either the power that Fielder would have provided or the elusive center fielder and leadoff man they’ve been seeking. We’ve already heard that Bryce Harper will get a long look in spring training. If he’s impressive enough out of the gate, he could earn that extra roster spot, himself. That could allow the team to platoon him with Morse in the outfield; Morse with LaRoche at first base; or give both Harper and Morse full-time Jobs if LaRoche’s bat doesn’t come around.
If Harper isn’t ready, maybe one of the center fielders will be. Eury Perez, who hit .283 with 45 steals for Class-A Potomac last season and hit .278 with 14 steals in 38 games in the Dominican Winter League, is already listed on the 40-man roster.
Even if they have to make do with what they have this season, the Nats have Morse locked up for the next two seasons as their eventual first baseman, leaving them free to tap what could be a far more fruitful free-agent class of 2013, which, according to mlbtraderumors.com, includes among others Tampa Bay’s B.J. Upton, the subject of some trade speculation this offseason.
Prince Fielder’s big bat would have fit nicely into the Nationals’ lineup this season and maybe for a couple after that. But his long-term potential and possible downside made the risk of a long-term contract too great. The team is probably better off going with its known quantities, looking to the farm system for immediate help and keeping an eye on next year’s free-agent market for any long-term fixes.