Despite Rizzo’s continued denials, Fielder-to-Nationals rumors just won’t die

No matter how many times he denies it, no matter how strongly general manager Mike Rizzo says Adam LaRoche is healthy and his team’s first baseman for 2012, the Nationals continue to be linked to free agent slugger Prince Fielder.

Maybe it’s the fact that NatsTown isn’t convinced LaRoche’s surgically repaired shoulder is fit enough to withstand the rigors of a full season. Maybe it’s the fact that Fielder remains unsigned as 2011 becomes 2012 and that his agent is Scott Boras, who has a lengthy history of doing business with the Nationals. Whatever the reason, the Fielder-to-the-Nationals rumors just won’t die.

Last night, via Baltimore Sun baseball writer Dan Connolly, came word from a baseball source that Boras and Fielder had visited the owner of an unnamed team in the “Baltimore-Washington area” to discuss the free agent’s destination. Apparently, that team wasn’t the Orioles and the owner wasn’t Peter Angelos, according to the report. While geography often tripped me up in Trivial Pursuit, I think Washington is the only other city in the Baltimore-Washington area with a major league franchise. Hence a new round of speculation, despite Rizzo’s insistence that the Nats are not interested in shelling out more than $25 million a year over 10 years for Fielder.

Appearing Wednesday on MLB Network Radio on Sirius/XM, Rizzo again threw cold water on thoughts that Fielder could be aiming prodigious pokes toward the short porch in right field next season, for the umpteenth time this winter endorsing LaRoche as the first baseman in 2012. His response to a question about Fielder is consistent with how he’s answered such queries for weeks.

“Adam LaRoche is under contract for us, we’re paying him a lot of money to play first base for us next year,” Rizzo said, echoing the same response he’s had since the Winter Meetings in Dallas. “We feel that he’s going to have a bounceback season. We just want him to have his career norms: .265, 25 (homers), 85 to 100 RBIs and play great defense. We feel that his shoulder is rehabbed, he’s 100 percent, and talking to him just recently he feels great and he’s ready to contribute to us in 2012. As far as, are we going to dabble our toe in that water (on Fielder)? Those are decisions that we make early on in the process and we’ve more or less decided that Adam is going to be our first baseman unless something extraordinary, out of the ordinary happened, that’s how we’re going to go to spring training.”

A day after the national radio interview, Jon Heyman of wrote that an unnamed Nationals player had told him, “We’re in the market. We’re still shooting for (Fielder).’‘

So what can we believe?

Let’s tackle the unnamed player’s inside information first. While it’s entirely possible that the Nationals have talked to Boras and Fielder - and it’s a pretty good bet that Rizzo is in possession of one of the hefty binders Boras has provided to explain how his client can lead a team to the promised land - LaRoche’s presence creates a huge stumbling block for a deal with the free agent. The Nationals owe LaRoche $8 million for 2012 and a $1 million buyout if the mutual $10 million player/team option isn’t exercised for 2013. Since LaRoche is coming off an injury, he’s unlikely to be traded, and $9 million is a lot to spend on a pinch hitter who can play one defensive position. Simply put - and pardon the holiday-themed explanation - but there’s no room at the inn. More than likely, a Boras client who plays for the Nationals is hoping aloud that Fielder could be added, a move that would make an instant contender out of a team that flirted with .500 in 2011. Keep in mind that driving up interest in Fielder also drives up his price, which drives up Boras’ commission.

Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson like to talk about “due diligence” whenever a potential free agent is the subject of discussion, and it’s certainly possible - perhaps even probable - that given the solid history between Boras and the Nationals that a member of the Lerner family sat down to speak to Boras. If it happened earlier this month, it was either just before, during or after the Winter Meetings (Mark Lerner, you’ll recall, was in Dallas). That’s when Boras usually makes his big pitches to teams, though this go-around saw him wait on the sidelines while the 10-year, $254 million mega-deal the Angels gave Albert Pujols merely drove up the asking price for Fielder. Boras is a master of the game, letting someone else set the market and then pointing to the baseline contract as a starting point. But what’s good for his client is also good for Boras.

If Boras holds firm with his demands, the Nationals won’t be interested. They’ve already got a lot of money tied up in Jayson Werth, will take a hit in arbitration on newly acquired Gio Gonzalez, have extensions with Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse in the offing, and need to take care of the likes of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Bryce Harper down the road. The last thing they need is a 10-year deal that locks them into a first baseman who can play only that position. If Boras lowers the asking price for Fielder, either in length or money, it would make him more palatable to a lot of teams, the Nationals included. And why wouldn’t the Nationals want to talk to the top free agent slugger remaining on the market?

There’s one other possibility: Rizzo has been using his protestations that LaRoche is his first baseman as a smokescreen to allow him freer reign to talk to Boras. This is unlikely, but knowing that Rizzo likes to maintain as much control as he can over such negotiations, anything is possible.

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