The Washington Times - January 25, 2012, 10:11AM

As I wrote Tuesday afternoon when the Detroit Tigers dropped a theoretical bomb on the baseball world with a nine-year, $214 million deal for Prince Fielder: The mystery team pulled off another coup.

But the Fielder deal got me thinking. Publicly, the Nationals were splashed all over this negotiation. On more than one occasion (and with a free agency this long there was certainly more than one occasion), it seemed as if perhaps that was more for superagent Scott Boras’ use than for the truth. While their interest was real it was also not exorbitant. Nine years and $214 million would certainly seem exorbitant to me.


Should there be disappointment that the burly slugger isn’t slotting into the Nationals’ lineup between Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse and taking aim at the Red Porch 81 games a year? Sure. After the way this free agency played out, with all of the rumors that swirled, it wasn’t unreasonable for fans to get their hopes up. Great players will always make a team better, at least immediately, and there’s no question that Fielder is a great player.

But the Nationals made it pretty clear in September that getting a first baseman wasn’t one of their priorities — and that seemed just fine with everyone then. There was optimism surrounding this Nationals team at the end of last season that was unlike anything the team had seen since moving to Washington. The players saw it, they felt it and they believed it too. And there’s no reason for any of that to have changed.

In fact, as Ryan Zimmerman pointed out to The Washington Post yesterday, “Mike (Rizzo) and the Lerners, they have a very definite plan of what they want to do. Those guys are doing a great job. They’ve done a lot of other good things this offseason, so I hope this doesn’t overshadow a lot of that. I wanted Fielder on our team as much as all the other 29 teams wanted him. The most important message is, hopefully this doesn’t overshadow all the other good things they’ve done this winter.”

And one of those good things, left-hander Gio Gonzalez, will be front and center at his new home park today to meet the media at 3:30 p.m.

Gonzalez is the prime example of how, even without Fielder, the Nationals have only improved their standing from when they ended the season in 2011. 

And one other thing to remember — that I think might have gotten lost in all of the excitement surrounding Fielder’s possible addition — is that the Nationals first basemen aren’t slouches. Adam LaRoche’s first year in Washington went terribly, but it was because of a tear in the labrum of his left shoulder that he was told wouldn’t get worse with playing and did anyway — not because of his diminishing skills. (And we all know what Michael Morse can do.)

A fully healthy Adam Laroche has averaged 25 home runs, 36 doubles, hit .271, got on-base at a .340 clip and slugged .488 in every season since 2005. In fact, in 2010 (the last year he was fully healthy) LaRoche was one of the top 10 first basemen in the National League. He was 10th in batting average (.261) and eighth in slugging percentage (.468). Know who was just one spot ahead of him in both of those categories? Prince Fielder, of course, who hit .261 as well with a .470 slugging percentage in 2010. I’m not saying LaRoche is a hitter of Fielder’s caliber, especially when it comes to power, and I think LaRoche will tell you the same, but the numbers were certainly interesting to look at.

LaRoche also plays superb defense at first base, something incredibly important with the Nationals’ heavy emphasis on pitching to contact and getting ground balls. And it’s important not to underestimate the impact of Adam LaRoche, the person, on the Nationals clubhouse — a high-character guy who teammates missed when he was out for the majority of 2011.

The Fielder pursuit and rumors didn’t affect LaRoche but they did force the team into making sure LaRoche knew how much they value him. While the Nationals name was being bandied about in every mention of Fielder, the Nationals were assuring LaRoche that he was still an important member of their team. 

With Fielder finally signed, the Nationals can move on exactly how they planned.