- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION

With only three games remaining before the NFL season wraps up (no, the Pro Bowl doesn’t count), baseball will take the stage shortly, when spring training begins just ahead of March Madness. We still don’t know if Prince Fielder will be among the Washington Nationals reporting to Viera, Fla., but at least pitcher Gio Gonzalez will be settling in for a while.

Signing Gonzalez to a contract extension that bought out his four years of arbitration, and potentially three years of free agency, involved some risk for both parties. But the strategy helped the Cleveland Indians become a perennial powerhouse in the mid-‘90s, winning five consecutive AL Central titles and six in seven years.

If Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has thoughts of emulating that success by locking up additional players, he can’t find a better sounding board than John Hart.

“Tampa Bay has done it as good as any club,” said Hart, an MLB Network analyst who served as the Indians GM from 1991 through 2001. “Number one, you’re able to fix the payroll and not be at the mercy of arbitration. Number two, it sends a great message to the fans and the ballclub, that the guy you traded for isn’t going to become a star you can’t afford.”

The Nats can afford any player they desire based on Ted Lerner’s status as baseball’s richest owner. And the rich are about to get richer, with the club’s rights fees from MASN expected to double or triple. Not that Lerner needs the extra revenue to sign Fielder, but adding the free agent slugger could increase the amount received for broadcast rights.

When Hart began locking up players such as Sandy Alomar, Carlos Baerga, Charles Nagy, Kenny Lofton and Albert Belle, he didn’t have revenue from a new stadium (then-Jacobs Field opened in 1994). And the players hadn’t yet reached the All-Star levels that became the norm. Rizzo could face the same question with youngsters such as Wilson Ramos, Jordan Zimmermann and Drew Storen.

But it takes two parties to reach a deal. Some players aren’t willing to give up potential income for guaranteed income, while some teams aren’t willing to bet on increased productivity and continued good health.

“You have guys who go year-by-year and that’s always the best way to some, in terms of reward,” said Jamie Appel, Gonzalez’s agent. “Year-by-year arbitration and then free agency. But some guys want security. You have to educate the player on how the deal affects him and everyone else in future negotiations. Gio will be 33 when the deal maxes out, and he can get another contract at that point.”

There’s never enough security to go around the clubhouse, which is playing out with third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and left fielder Michael Morse. Both are eligible for free agency following the 2013 season. The Nats have expressed an interest in keeping face-of-the-franchise Zimmerman, who shares that desire.

But Morse’s future in Washington becomes precarious if Fielder is signed, presuming Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper will be the long-term corner outfielders. And if the Nats fail to agree on an extension with Zimmerman, they already drafted his successor with the sixth overall draft pick last year, Anthony Rendon.

The Nats haven’t made the same splash this offseason that they made in signing Werth last offseason, but they’ve been prominent in hot stove headlines. From the Gonzalez trade to the Fielder rumors to the Gonzalez extension, Washington indeed has changed its perception — without spending $126 million this time (so far).

Rizzo’s next step could involve gauging his belief in other young players and his willingness to offer multiyear deals ahead of schedule. Then again, the team’s schedule for contending could be sped up dramatically if Lerner gives the go-ahead on Fielder.

“They have to determine how close they are,” Hart said. “They have to look at how Prince or any big-ticket free agent bodes with the future. It’s the ability to keep the club together for a period of time versus ‘Let’s go ahead, get this star player and jump.’ “

That would be a tremendous leap, causing interest in the Nats to skyrocket further. But the strides already taken have been noticeable and will continue to bear fruit. Gonzalez probably wouldn’t have signed the extension otherwise.

“They’re building something good there,” Appel said. “He knows the Nationals are committed to winning, and they’re proving it by doing these moves — getting people locked up, making good draft choices and spending money on players in the draft that they know can contribute down the line.”

Scott Boras, who represents several Nats, rarely if ever consents to multiyear pacts that shave a client’s eligibility for arbitration and free agency. So we can’t expect the Gonzalez extension to start a trend around here.

But it’s likely a harbinger of good things to come — with or without Fielder.