Fielder chatter is becoming more difficult to ignore (updated with Nats in running)

The Nationals are expected this week to hold a press conference to introduce their newest acquisition, left-hander Gio Gonzalez. At the rate the Prince Fielder rumors are swirling around D.C., however, this might be the more likely line of questioning, and little has to do with the southpaw late of the Oakland A’s:

General manager Mike Rizzo, handing Gonzalez his new Nats jersey and cap: “We’re thrilled and happy to welcome Gio Gonzalez to the Nationals family.”

Gonzalez, fumbling with buttons as he dons new jersey, or as he adjusts flat brim on cap: “I’m happy to be here. How many days until spring training?”

Rizzo, smiling like proud papa as he turns to the media: “So, any questions?”

Reporters, en masse: “Mike, what’s the latest on your interest in Prince Fielder?”

So much for the elephant in the corner that no one wants to talk about.

If 2011 drew to a close with Rizzo unable to do anything to blunt the incessant rumors that slugging free agent first baseman Fielder was next on his post-holiday shopping list, 2012 has begun with a new round of speculation that Fielder will don a curly W cap by the time spring training opens in mid-February in Viera, Fla.

More chatter hit Monday, while folks were just emerging from their new year’s hangovers. Out of Milwaukee, where Fielder spent his entire career before testing free agency, came a report that, according to a major league executive, baseball insiders believe Washington is the most likely destination for Fielder. Then, in The Washington Post, Fielder’s agent, Scott Boras said that the field for the free agent was narrowing - and his comments seem to hint that the Nationals are among the suitors.

“I keep having discussions with teams, and they keep coming back after those discussions,” Boras told The Post. “We are having a very robust and constant communication with many teams. We’ve had an opportunity over the last 10 days to certainly get more definition, I would say. Normally in free agency, after a period of time you have teams that move to the background. When we think that’s happened, those teams have called back and they’ve changed their position.”

Sound like Boras could be talking about any team that already has a first baseman named Adam LaRoche and has expressed a preference toward heading to spring training with LaRoche on the roster?

Yes, the Lerner family has deep pockets and a desire to win sooner rather than later, and right now, that means that a new mathematical equation is in play: Lerners + money to burn = instant link to any free agent likely to help the club and cost a bundle.

Fielder would fit nicely in a Washington uniform - well, as long as he’s not insisting on beating the 10-year, $254 million deal Albert Pujols squeezed out of Angels owner Arte Moreno last month. LaRoche’s presence, as we discussed over the weekend, presents a formidable stumbling block to Fielder’s arrival in NatsTown. But maybe the Lerners sat around, waiting for the ball to drop in Times Square at midnight Saturday and figured, “Hey, what’s $9 million we owe LaRoche when Fielder would excite the fan base, put more fannies in the seats and translate into more money in our pockets? Heck, yes, let’s sign the big galoot.”

Boras and the Nationals don’t seem to encounter the same problems in contract talks that Boras seems to find with the other 29 clubs, so that’s working in the club’s favor. Maybe LaRoche stays on the roster even if Fielder arrives and Rizzo uses spring training for LaRoche to prove he’s fully recovered from the shoulder injury that forced surgery and prematurely ended his first season in Washington. Maybe the GM already has a contingency plan worked out and LaRoche is as good as gone if Fielder is signed to a long-term (but not as long as he first wanted) deal.

When he spoke to MLB Network Radio on Sirius/XM Radio last week, Rizzo sounded pretty sure that LaRoche would be the starting first baseman when the Nationals open the 2012 campaign at Wrigley Field on April 5. But like a well-trained D.C. diplomat, Rizzo left himself some wiggle room.

“As far as, are we going to dabble our toe in that (Fielder) water? 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,” Rizzo said.

Fielder has carved himself a niche as a feared offensive force. Now he’s the subject of much speculation. We’ll see if he’s still the elephant in the room the next time Rizzo faces the media.

Updated: has reported, and a baseball source has confirmed for me, that the Nationals have, indeed, met with Boras, and are hoping to sign the free agent slugger. Ken Rosenthal of has reported that, according to a source, Boras is seeking an opt-out clause that could be exercised by Fielder several years into a long-term deal. Apparently, the call on whether to meet Fielder’s financial demands will come from the Lerner family.

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