I’m starting to feel like I know Prince Fielder better than I should. Isn’t it bad enough that I owned his slugging father Cecil on my American League Rotisserie team for many years, gambling a pick on the elder when he came back from Japan after rediscovering his home run stroke (and, apparently, a lot more rice than sushi)? But I’ve resigned myself to the fact that until he signs elsewhere, Prince will be dominating discussion in NatsTown.
At least hot stove season isn’t boring, right?
As it always is, money is at the heart of the matter. It’s the age-old offseason tug of war between a player and his agent, and the team courting him (or being courted): The player and his agent want as much as they can exact from a long-term deal that’s tilted in their favor, while the team, its ownership and general manager will attempt to do what they can to diminish their risk while still maintaining interest and working toward a happy conclusion of talks.
There’s no doubt the Nationals are interested in Fielder. He’s a middle-of-the-lineup offensive force in a game where there are fewer and fewer pure cleanup hitters. At 27, he’s young enough that his prime production years are ahead of him, even though his resume to this point is pretty darned impressive. He’s loved by his teammates and regarded as a good clubhouse guy, a young veteran who’s earned immense respect for his preparation and work ethic. What’s not to like?
Despite the pluses, the deal Fielder and agent Scott Boras are trying to hammer out with the Nationals - or any other interested team, for that matter - is the kind that makes smart baseball people stop and think twice. Boras and Fielder have been talking Albert Pujols money - Pujols got a 10-year, $254 million contract from the Angels last month - and that demand brings a whole new series of risk/reward conversations.
The length of the deal troubles some - how will a 27-year-old guy hold up over a decade? Despite few injury issues over his career, the 270 lbs. packed onto his 5-foot-11 frame, raise some issues - assuming you believe that’s his actual weight. Fielder is a big guy - that’s where his power comes from - but that size could end up manifesting itself in knee issues down the road. And with no designated hitter role in the National League, a long-term contract for a one-dimensional player could paint the Nats into a corner. And then there’s the financial constraints the addition of Fielder would bring to a team that’s already committed big dollars to Jayson Werth and will need to talk long-term deal with Ryan Zimmerman in the near future (not to mention the arbitration raises and extensions many of its core younger players are likely to receive).
The Lerner family, of course, has the financial wherewithal to absorb another big contract. Simple baseball mathematics dictates that Fielder won’t produce a diminishing return: A slugger translates into wins, which produce pennant races, which equal more fans in the stands. The Lerners want to win, last season’s advances may have hastened the timetable for success and Fielder could be the final piece to the present puzzle.
But 10 years is a long time, longer even than the history of the team in D.C., which is one reason this is such a make-or-break decision. Sluggers like Fielder capable of changing the face and fortunes of a franchise, don’t come along every year. Maybe a shorter term (seven or eight years?), less money each season ($20-$23 million?) or an opt-out clause that doesn’t totally favor the player over his risk-taking new employer might make such an investment more palatable for even the deepest-pocketed ownership.
Even if they aren’t publicly saying so - and why would they, since it would hurt their bargaining position? - the Nationals are in on Fielder. And that’s exciting for a fan base intrigued by the possibilities after the Nats flirted with .500 and finished in third place in the National League East last season. For general manager Mike Rizzo, that means maintaining a poker face as often as possible throughout negotiations with the Fielder/Boras camp and trying to deflect as much attention as he can, given the circumstances.
Your turn: What’s your take? How much do you think the Nationals can comfortably expend on Fielder?