- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 4, 2011

DALLAS — The story by now is a familiar one: Writers, executives and agents were still trickling in on the eve of the MLB winter meetings in Orlando last year when suddenly there was a news conference to be had and a bomb to be dropped. The Washington Nationals signed Jayson Werth. Seven years, $126 million dollars and a whole lot of buzz.

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said that day it was the start of something new for the organization. “Phase two,” he called it. The team spokesman who introduced Rizzo at the news conference called it “monumental.”

As the baseball world arrived in Dallas on Sunday, the Nationals were another year removed from the losing and rebuilding days of their predecessors — one year into Phase Two — and preparing to make the next step.

They were also quiet. They’ve made their interests known thus far: They’d like a starting pitcher and a center fielder, and they have been linked to names such as Mark Buehrle, C.J. Wilson, Roy Oswalt and Yoenis Cespedes. They’ve come to Dallas with a specific shopping list and the means to pick up everything they need.


And then there’s Prince Fielder, the slugging left-handed first baseman who would slot into any lineup quite nicely but would look particularly fearsome hitting between Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse, who are both right-handers.

The Nationals don’t need a first baseman. They already have two on their roster in Adam LaRoche and Morse. But if Rizzo and the Nationals intend on making it two straight winter meetings with a splash, Fielder’s their guy.

Fielder and Albert Pujols will tower over these winter meetings. The bashing first basemen came into the offseason as the top two targets on the free agent market and while things have been slow to develop, little has changed in the weeks that have passed. The team that first lands one will instantly become the organization everyone is talking about — the team the Nationals opened the winter meetings as last year, proving they’re capable of a surprise.

About a month ago, the question of whether Washington would be involved with the big-name free agents — Pujols, Fielder, shortstop Jose Reyes and the like — was posed to Rizzo. He was about as blunt as he could be without putting a firm “no” on the matter. He called it a “safe assumption” that Washington would find itself more spectator than bidding-war participant for the big boys — with one caveat.

“Things can change rapidly in this business,” Rizzo told SiriusXM. “If a spot were to come available because of a trade … then you may be in that marketplace. But as it stands today, in November … we feel we like the core and the nucleus we have right now. They’re cost-effective and they’re good players on the way up. We’re extremely happy with what we’ve got right now.”

A few weeks in a baseball offseason, though, is a relative eon — and plenty of time for Rizzo and someone such as Fielder’s agent, Scott Boras, to discuss various possibilities, as FoxSports.com reported they had last week. The Nationals‘ interest, one club source said, is real. Whether it is realistic or prudent is what Rizzo and the rest of the Nationals front office will have to decide this week and as the offseason progresses.

Nationals manager Davey Johnson feels his team is close to contention as it’s currently constructed. That’s the stance he took toward the end of the 2011 season and one he has maintained even as the Nationals continue to be linked to nearly every big-name free agent on the market.

The cake, as he put it, is almost ready to be put in the oven — if lacking just a few ingredients. Fielder, and any other member of the $100 million-plus free agent class, would be icing.

“We don’t need it,” Johnson said, “but I always like a little icing.”