Rumor mill churning on Fielder, Upton

First things first: That report last night indicating that the Nationals had come to an agreement with Prince Fielder on an eight-year deal with an opt-out clause after the third season was erroneous. My sources tell me that no deal is imminent, though the Nationals continue to be interested in the slugging first baseman, but only on their terms.

Jon Heyman of tweeted this morning that there is “something close to a final 4” on Fielder. Whether this constitutes reality or is just some way of agent Scott Boras creating leverage by increasing the number of teams supposedly in on the biggest free agent still available remains to be seen. MLB Network Radio baseball analyst (and former major league general manager) Jim Duquette believes one of those remaining teams is the Orioles, though I still don’t see the Nats’ neighbors to the north as anything more than leverage in this negotiation - unless the O’s are truly in stealth mode. Baltimore executive vice president Dan Duquette - Jim’s cousin - waltzed around a question about interest in Fielder at the team’s FanFest on Saturday, but Jim Duquette thinks the slugger makes sense at Camden Yards because his stroke is made for the park, the move will please a grumpy fan base and the acquisition would positively impact TV ratings on MASN at the Nats’ expense.

If there is a final four, it’s likely the Nationals, Rangers, Orioles and Dodgers.

More and more, it appears Fielder’s choice will go down to the wire - and by that, I mean just before pitchers and catchers are ready to report to spring training sites in Florida and Arizona. One thing that could play into the Nationals’ favor on some level is the fact that Fielder makes his offseason home near Orlando, a little more than an hour away from Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla.

While we sift through Fielder rumors, we might as well address that pesky chatter linking the Nationals - yes, again - with Rays center fielder B.J. Upton, a player GM Mike Rizzo has long coveted. As commenter Michael Burgin pointed out yesterday, the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo is reporting the Rays may be willing to trade Upton - who avoided arbitration last week by signing a $7 million, one-year deal (with some additional incentives) - if it will solve a nagging hole at shortstop.

Cue the Ian Desmond-to-Tampa rumors.

Rizzo would love to slot Upton into center field, and many baseball observers think Upton would prosper with a change of scenery. But he’s not the leadoff guy the Nationals really want, and Rizzo isn’t about to trade his current leadoff man, filling one hole to merely create another. While the brain trust on South Capitol Street likes Stephen Lombardozzi, they aren’t sold on him, and there are concerns whether his bat will play as an everyday player or whether he’s best suited to be a utility guy. Mark DeRosa fills that role for the short term, and by trading Desmond and shifting Danny Espinosa to shortstop and plugging DeRosa in at second, the Nationals again solve one issue while manufacturing another. Where’s the utility guy, the right-handed hitter manager Davey Johnson wants off the bench?

By committing to Jayson Werth in center field for 2012, Rizzo is tacitly saying he’s willing to wait out the market and hope guys like Upton and the Braves’ Michael Bourn don’t sign long term with their current teams, making them free agents next offseason. It also gives him another year to see how some of the Nationals’ minor league options for center field - fleet youngsters like Michael Taylor, Eury Perez and Brian Goodwin - fare. Maybe the Nats decide that Upton is a good buy, either at the trading deadline or next offseason; maybe they think a prospect’s development precludes a long-term deal that would only serve to block them. But at this point, I don’t see Rizzo dealing anyone from his major league roster in that kind of trade.

Fun Fielder Factoid: Before the 2008 season, Fielder became a vegetarian, opting for healthier choices to replace meat and fish in his diet. What sparked the change? Apparently, it was a copy of “Skinny Bitch,” a New York Times best-seller given to the now-275-pounder by his wife Chanel. Whether Fielder remains a vegetarian is up for debate. He has reportedly chowed down on a rack of barbecued ribs at Pappy’s Smokehouse in St. Louis, perhaps as recently as last year but certainly after his non-carnivore conversion.

Whaddaya think?: If there is a final four for Fielder, who are the teams in the mix? Will Rizzo deal for Upton, and if so, when? What are you willing to give up in a trade for the Rays’ center fielder? Which of Washington’s outfield prospects will make the biggest - and quickest - impact?

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