The Fielder-Nationals impasse - and what it might really mean (updated)

The Nationals and Scott Boras, the agent for Prince Fielder, have reached an impasse in negotiations for a long-term contract that would bring the slugging first baseman to D.C. A baseball source has confirmed that the Nationals are balking at the length of the deal, not wanting to commit seven or more years to the 27-year-old Fielder, who has been rumored to want 10 years and more than $240 million.

While NatsTown is understandably unhappy with this turn of events, fans should realize that bargaining’s version of the immovable object at loggerheads with the unstoppable force doesn’t necessarily mean that the Nationals are any less interested in Fielder’s services. The Nationals are on the precipice of contention and a perfect confluence of events - including Fielder’s availability - dictates this still could be the right time to make a weighty financial outlay for a middle-of-the-lineup presence. Approaching the end of the second week of January, Fielder continues to search for a home in 2012 and beyond. The market isn’t as flush with suitors as Boras might have expected and Fielder and his agent must soon decide whether they need to retool their contractual demands, a move that could facilitate a quicker resolution to his joblessness.

It’s entirely possible that the Lerner family, despite its financial resources, isn’t willing to commit the kind of money it will take to land Fielder. But without traditional free spenders like the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers in the mix - and with general manager Mike Rizzo telling people that he thinks the Nats are a power stick away from contending in the competitive National League East - that seems unlikely. For every possible reason not to open a bank vault for Fielder - what it could mean to third baseman Ryan Zimmerman’s future with the club, whether the Nats can afford both Fielder and Jayson Werth’s hefty contracts, the question of what to do with first baseman Adam LaRoche, whether the Nationals will be able to afford Fielder and burgeoning stars like Drew Storen, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper down the road - I can make an argument that now is the perfect time to lock in Fielder.

Maybe 10 years is too long. Maybe seven years doesn’t sound much better, with worries about Fielder’s long-term ability to maintain his health and play first base into his mid-30s. Maybe a five- or six-year deal would be more palatable to the Nationals, even if it includes some sort of an opt-out clause and the no-trade protection that Boras is seeking. Regardless of the thinking, there isn’t another All-Star with a 100-RBI bat who has drawn 100 or more walks in three of the past four seasons on the open market. Sometimes, you’ve just got to pay the piper.

But back to the notion that an impasse in negotiations foreshadows a scenario where Fielder lands elsewhere - Toronto, if he’s willing to take a shorter term; Texas, if the Rangers can’t sign pitcher Yu Darvish; Seattle, if he can stomach losing for a few seasons; or even Milwaukee, if the planets properly align. Discussions, even those built on multi-million-dollar offers to prolific power hitters, are built on two things: secrecy and compromise.

Rizzo plays everything close to the vest; he’s not going to conduct contract talks with Boras through the media. That’s why it’s been so difficult to glean anything from the Nationals’ camp: Rizzo knows how sensitive this situation is, how potentially game-changing this decision will be for his team, and he’s treading very carefully. Boras may try to negotiate in more public venues, but Rizzo won’t. It wouldn’t be surprising if Boras was waiting for a resolution to talks with the Rangers about Darvish, hoping that the emergence of another legitimate bidder would create leverage for his client. Yes, the Nats and Fielder’s camp remain involved in discussions, even if one side or the other pretends they are gridlocked. Ceasing communications doesn’t get Boras, Fielder or the Nationals anywhere; it’s in their best interests to keep talking, even if one side isn’t hearing what they’d like.

Boras has a strong history with the Nationals, having negotiated the deals for Strasburg and Harper when they were draft picks. In each case, he took as much time as he possibly could, playing beat the clock in an attempt to get maximum bargaining power for his client. That’s what agents do, much in the same way that team presidents and general managers try not to accede to an agent’s demands. Boras made the Nationals sweat, but deals got done, deals both sides could live with. One-sided negotiations go nowhere, and history suggests Boras and the Nationals are both adept at finding the middle ground that’s satisfactory to both. Impasse talk might be uncomfortable, but it can also buy important time - out of the limelight, after the public has dismissed the possibility of an agreement - to come to a mutually satisfactory conclusion.

Right now, teams aren’t beating down Boras’ door with fists full of money. And that silence, however thorny to observers on the sidelines, could still wind up working in the Nationals’ favor.

Update: According to multiple media reports stemming from this item in The Washington Post, Boras met with Ted and Mark Lerner today in Scottsdale, Ariz., where Major League Baseball owners are holding scheduled meetings. So either the impasse has been broken or it never was an impasse at all.

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