After Fielder’s choice, what’s next for Nationals?

There’s not much more to say about Prince Fielder’s decision to agree to a nine-year, $214 million contract with the Tigers this afternoon, ending the most drawn-out free agent pursuit of the offseason. Several of the clubs interested in the slugging first baseman could have offered him the chance to win. Several of those teams could have offered him the opportunity to reprise Reggie Jackson’s persona as the straw that stirs the drink. A couple could have offered him long-term security.

But only one team came up with a length and term that met Fielder’s demands, and it wasn’t the Nationals offering that princely sum.

While it’s perfectly normal to ruminate about what might have happened if things had shaken out differently, this seems to be pretty clear cut. Fielder was interested in the longest term and largest payday he could get. That’s his right as a free agent, and the Tigers, scrambling to replace the offensive production lost when catcher/first baseman/designated hitter Victor Martinez tore his ACL, were willing to pony up more than other suitors. The American League is probably the best fit for Fielder. Though he’s entering his prime offensive years, the 27-year-old will be in his mid-30s by the time the new deal ends and will probably yield first base to someone younger so he can contribute as a DH.

If you expect the Nationals to have a sour taste in their collective mouths, think again. They were prepared for the possibility that Fielder might go elsewhere, and those public protestations about being fine with opening 2012 with Adam LaRoche at first base and in the middle of the batting order weren’t idle chatter. Mike Rizzo believes LaRoche is recovered from left shoulder surgery that cost him most of last season and that he is capable of matching his career norms of 26 homers, 92 RBIs and a .267 average. If he hits those marks, slotted between right-handed hitters Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse in the Washington lineup, the offense will be fine.

So what does the resolution of the Fielder negotiations tell us?

For one, Rizzo sounds like he thinks the Nats are built to win a year or two down the road. If the Nationals thought Fielder was a difference-maker, they’d have handed over the fistfuls of cash necessary to procure his services. But Rizzo has a young core of pitchers (Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann) and offense (Danny Espinosa, Wilson Ramos and Ian Desmond). He’s confident that Ryan ZImmerman will be healthy for a full season and that Jayson Werth’s struggles last year were an aberration. And he knows that Bryce Harper is waiting in the wings.

Rizzo also obviously values the other windmill he’s been chasing - a center fielder who can hit leadoff - more than a power bat. Other than Yoenis Cespedes, who finally has declared residency in the Dominican Republic and can now be courted by major league teams, there really aren’t any of those on the open market. And it remains to be seen whether the Cuban defector is interested in the Nationals, who have scouted him extensively. Werth will man center field in 2012, barring a late move, and Rizzo will hope that guys like the Rays’ B.J. Upton, the Phillies’ Shane Victorino and the Braves’ Michael Bourn don’t sign long-term extensions that would prevent them from hitting the free agent market next winter. Who knows, maybe one of them will be available at the trading deadline and the Nats can swing a deal and hammer out an extension in one transaction. Stranger things have happened.

Finally, we’ve learned that the Nationals are serious about their “Right player, right price” mantra. Yes, they shelled out $126 million last winter for Werth, an exorbitant amount for a veteran considered a fine complementary player. And the Lerners, deep pockets and all, are willing to spend money to make their team better. But since they’re going to have to do a lot of that in the coming few years - when those core players earn big raises through arbitration, or because they want to prevent those key contributors from reaching free agency - the willingness to spend money really isn’t the issue. It’s more a case of spending wisely. In other words, would you rather have long-term extensions for, say, Zimmerman, Zimmermann, Strasburg and Espinosa - which keep the core together - or would you prefer to spend a bundle on one player whose inflated salary might inhibit the ability to retain other players?

Fielder would have looked nice taking aim at the second and third levels in right field, much like Adam Dunn used to do. He’d have worked fine at first base, and certainly provided better defense than Dunn (but not by a lot). He would have embraced his role in making the Nationals a winner much like he did when things clicked in Milwaukee and the once-woebegone Brewers suddenly reached postseason.

It just wasn’t meant to be.

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