LAKELAND, Fla. — It was just more than six weeks ago that the Detroit Tigers dropped the bombshell of the baseball offseason and announced a nine-year, $214 million contract with Prince Fielder that ended one of the longest big-ticket free agencies in the sport’s history.
The Nationals, of course, were rumored to be in hot on Fielder until the very end and Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo acknowledged later that they were indeed involved with the Fielder talks for some time.
“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,” Rizzo said that week in January. “Prince is a terrific player and he got paid like the superstar that he is.”
On a hazy Saturday morning in Lakeland, Fla., Fielder addressed the Nationals’ interest in him this past offseason. As far as Fielder could remember, the Nationals did not present a formal offer for him. But he enjoyed his meeting with the team’s ownership group and Rizzo in D.C. in December and said he “definitely wouldn’t have minded playing for them.”
“But,” he said, looking around, “I’m here.”
“You usually end up loving the team that loves you,” he said. “There’s always teams you’d like to go with, but in the end it’s which team you can get together with and come up with a deal.”
The Nationals were not inclined to go anywhere close to nine years for Fielder, sources have said, and the length of the contract, more so than the money, was a sticking point for them. Just more than a month after Fielder sat at a press conference in Detroit, the Nationals’ held one for their own nine-figure man, Ryan Zimmerman, who signed a six-year, $100 million contract extension two weeks ago.
For Fielder, though, the Nationals were certainly intriguing. He noted their young stable of talent as one of the most appealing reasons for him to end up there — bringing up names like Stephen Strasburg, Michael Morse and Jayson Werth — but if there was one thing that stood out about Washington, it was Bryce Harper.
And count Fielder among those who feel Harper is on the brink of ultimate superstardom.
“They had a 19-year-old phenom, that was about the only difference (between them and other teams in pursuit),” Fielder said. “I personally think Bryce is going to be a superstar. Like I said, Strasburg, Werth, Morse all those guys but I really like Bryce a lot. I think he’s a stud. I really do.
“Just by watching him and watching how he plays and how he carries himself, the guy who’s been the man since he was 14, 16 whatever, it’s a lot to deal with and for him to keep working at his craft and the way he’s handled is success, it’s special to see that, especially out of a 19-year old. I know at 19 I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”
Harper, of course, is a fellow client of Scott Boras, as is Werth and Strasburg and Fielder said he heard through Boras often that the Nationals’ players were pulling for him to land with them.
Unlike the Nationals’ interest in Fielder, which grew as the market for him appeared to thin as the offseason went on, Fielder said the Nationals were a team he was always interested in and the perception he had of them as an up-and-coming team didn’t change throughout.
“I always thought they were a good team that had a lot of young talent,” he said. “They were going to be really good. They were good already. It’s just sometimes you’ve got to find that one more thing, I guess. But I felt like they were going to have a chance to contend right now. I think they’re a great team.”
The word “Detroit” is stitched across his chest now, joining the Tigers to make one of the most formidable and intimidating lineups in the major leagues. But, he admits, he could have seen himself in Washington.
“Definitely,” he said. “Why not?”