- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 29, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION

Landing left-handed starter Gio Gonzalez was a big move for the Washington Nationals, addressing one of two major goals as outlined by general manager Mike Rizzo.

Prince Fielder wouldn’t address Rizzo’s second objective — an outfield bat, preferably in center field and atop the lineup. But the rotund first baseman is the biggest move possible for Washington or any team in the market for an offensive boost.

Should the Nats sign Fielder, whose age (27) is appealing but whose weight (275 pounds) is worrisome? Could they sign him, satisfying the desired terms of seven or eight years at approximately $25 million per? Would they sign him, making Adam LaRoche expendable and creating a potential logjam at first base in the near future?

If it’s not my money or my headache to make everything fit, the answer is YES!

I know, I know. The Nats already overspent on Jayson Werth last season and topped it off with a no-trade clause. Ryan Zimmerman deserves an extension that will keep him in D.C. past 2013, and it won’t be cheap. LaRoche is due “only” $8 million this year, but his trade value is limited unless he plays and proves his bum shoulder is fully healed.

All of those are sound reasons to pass on Fielder, especially since he wouldn’t solve the Nats’ more-pressing concerns, a center fielder and leadoff hitter.

But if Werth is going to play center and shortstop Ian Desmond is going to bat first, regardless, the prospect of Fielder’s left-handed bat in the middle of the lineup is too tantalizing to ignore. Not that the Nationals absolutely should take a shot at landing the slugger, but it begs serious consideration.

Washington is destined to be mentioned whenever agent Scott Boras’ clients hit the market. Several dot the Nats’ roster, including Werth, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Danny Espinosa. Fielder also is represented by Boras, which might explain the consistent reports of Washington’s interest.

Rizzo has done his best to downplay the rumors, not wanting to upset LaRoche and/or tip the Nats’ hand. But, rightly so, Rizzo hasn’t ruled out the possibility completely. The price for Fielder might drop into an acceptable range for the up-and-coming Nationals, presenting an opportunity too good to refuse.

“We’ve more or less decided that Adam is going to be our first baseman,” Rizzo said this week on MLB Network Radio. “Unless something extraordinary and out of the ordinary happened, that’s how we’re going to go into spring training.”

That’s certainly a reasonable and fiscally responsible plan.

Indications are that LaRoche, who had surgery in June for a torn labrum in his left shoulder, will be 100 percent healthy when he reports to camp. If he approaches his career norms of a .271 batting average with 23 homers and 81 RBI, while playing arguably the league’s best defense at first base, he’ll be a valuable component for manager Davey Johnson.

The lineup wouldn’t be nearly as dynamic and intimidating as it would be with Fielder, but the Nats would be viable contenders, especially with the addition of a second wild card starting next season.

They wouldn’t have to worry about Fielder’s body leading to a premature decline. Or his contract affecting their ability to sign a center fielder and Zimmerman. Or putting Fielder, Werth, Harper and Michael Morse in the same lineup, with none of them in center.

Leaving Fielder on the free agent shelf makes the most sense, if that’s the sole goal.

But if the aim is emotional as much as rational, an effort to ignite fans and make another pronouncement that Washington indeed is a destination franchise, signing him is the best way.

Harper could be a long-term solution if he can play center, flanked by Morse and Werth. The early returns weren’t great — he played there in 20 of 108 minor league games last season with a .943 fielding average (compared to .970 in right and .955 in left). If Harper can’t play center and Werth can’t be expected to play there for long, the Nats could do just fine with those two in the corners, a newcomer in the middle and Morse at first when LaRoche’s contract expires.

That wouldn’t be as sexy or splashy as landing Fielder, one of four first basemen with at least 200 homers by the age of 27 (the others are Hall of Famers Jimmie Foxx, Orlando Cepeda and Harmon Killebrew). But the Nats would still be one of baseball’s most-promising young teams.

I know, I know. Fielder probably isn’t worth the money he’ll command or the roster headaches he might create. But surely he tempts Washington to act like a big-time club, to say ‘What the hell?’ and take a shot.

The best part of fancying Fielder? The Nats should be in good shape either way.

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