Rizzo: Nationals were “very close” to signing Prince Fielder before bowing out

If Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo was upset at not landing free agent first baseman Prince Fielder, he masked the disappointment well.

Speaking after the Nationals introduced left-hander Gio Gonzalez to the media Wednesday afternoon, Rizzo said the Nationals had done their best to come to terms with Fielder, who agreed to a nine-year, $214 million deal. Rizzo even hinted that the Nationals were “very close” to signing Fielder.

“Does Prince Fielder help any club he’s with? There’s no question about it,” Rizzo said. “Were we interested in him? There’s no question about it. We were in the negotiations until it didn’t make sense for us to be in the negotiations any longer so we had to back out. Prince is a terrific player and he got paid like the superstar that he is. Congratulations to the Detroit Tigers. They just got a lot better.”

Rizzo said the Nationals met once with Fielder and several times with his agent, Scott Boras, to try to hammer out a contract. Rizzo wouldn’t go into specifics about what was offered to Fielder, though it’s believed that the Nationals were uncomfortable with the length of the deal the slugger wanted.

“I had parameters set in my mind with what my threshold was for the player and once it exceeded that threshold, we felt that if the market didn’t come back to us, we were out of it,” Rizzo said.

But Rizzo said despite media reports to the contrary, the Nationals were in on Fielder until the end.

“Yes, it was very close to when he signed,” Rizzo added.

When asked how the talks with Fielder came about - especially since he threw cold water on speculation that the Nationals were a player for the first baseman during the Winter Meetings - Rizzo called the situation “very unpredictable.” While the Nationals were, and are, comfortable heading into spring training with Adam LaRoche at first base and Michael Morse as a backup plan, Rizzo couldn’t bypasas the opportunity to add a power bat from the left side to his lineup.

“We thought we saw an opportunity to really improve ourselves, to accelerate our improvement curve by the signing of a player we thought was a good fit for us,” Rizzo explained. “We loved the player. We did our due diligence and went through the process and met ... on several occasions with the agent, on one occasion met with the player, and it was the process that went through the winter. It varied from what we thought we were going to do at the beginning of the offseason, but we thought it was a good opportunity to really accelerate our program and take us to a different level.”

Unlike last year, when the Nationals had to overpay to lure free agent Jayson Werth to D.C. with a seven-year, $126 million deal, Rizzo said there was no reason to open the bank vault. Instead, the Nationals held firm with what they were willing to pay for Fielder, even though it meant he signed elsewhere.

“We feel that we no longer have to beg and overpay for players to come to us,” Rizzo said. “We feel that this is becoming an attractive place for major league players to play. Jayson Werth’s signing has a lot to do with that. We acquired a major free agent to come here with a 69-win team. We’ve performed much better and shown that the organization is in much better shape and secondly, we have options and that particular position. We feel that we have very good options, two very good players that can play first base for us and that’s not even dipping into our minor league system.

“We think Adam LaRoche is the player that we signed two years ago that’s 25-85 (home runs/RBIs), Gold Glove-caliber first baseman and if he’s not 100 percent healthy - which we believe he is, he says he is (and) he says he’s going to be ready for spring training - we certainly know that Mike Morse can handle the position offensively and defensively.”

Rizzo said the negotiations with Fielder also made their own statement about where the Nationals are as a franchise.

“I think it makes the statement that we’re in this, we’re in to win and we have the resources to go after some of the elite players in the game, and also makes the statement that we’re going to do what we have to do to win, but it’s going to have to work for us in the long term,” Rizzo said. “We’re a team that’s turning the corner and the needle is pointing up and it’s going to be an attractive place for players to play. There’s players that want to play here, agents call me to come and play for the washington Nationals, and that is a 180 from where we were as early as two years ago, we remember, when we won 59 games.”

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