The mystery team pulled off another coup.
With the Prince Fielder negotiations coming to a head Tuesday, it was not the Washington Nationals or the Texas Rangers or any of the other rumored favorites who secured the slugger. Instead it was the Detroit Tigers, the American League Central champions, who jumped into the race at the last minute and walked away with Fielder for a reported nine years and $214 million.
"Our pockets are deep, but they are not that deep," Nationals manager Davey Johnson told reporters at the Baseball Assistance Team dinner in New York shortly after the news of Fielder's signing broke.
So Fielder, whom the Nationals had quietly and patiently courted this offseason, will head to Detroit on the megadeal agent Scott Boras set out to get him. He'll play for the team and city that his father, Cecil Fielder, hit 245 home runs for and was a three-time All-Star for in the 1990s.
And the Nationals will move on, just as they planned, with Adam LaRoche as their first baseman.
"We feel we have a good first baseman in Adam LaRoche," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo told The Washington Times in early January with speculation rampant that his team was the frontrunner to land Fielder.
"We feel he's 100 percent and when he's 100 percent, we're going to get the 25 homer, 85-100 RBIs and great defense at first base. We're committed to him. We also have a backup plan at first base with Mike Morse if Adam were not to be ready this year for some reason. We feel that we're settled at that position."
That didn't stop the rumor mill from linking the Nationals to Fielder, and it didn't stop them from maintaining their party line, at least publicly. The Nationals were interested in Fielder, that was never in question. "Does Prince Fielder help the club?" Rizzo said. "Of course he helps the club. He'll help any club he's with." But they weren't interested at an exorbitant price tag or a lengthy deal.
Team sources maintained throughout Fielder's elongated free agency that the club was leery of going more than six or seven years for Fielder, especially in the National League with no designated hitter option for him in those later years. The price was more negotiable, given Washington owner Ted Lerner's well-publicized deep pockets. Boras and Fielder got both from Detroit, anyway.
"Scott said from Day 1 it was going to be $200 million," Brewers general manager Bob Melvin told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel after they officially lost their first baseman.
And for $8 million, the Nationals still will have a healthy LaRoche — a leader in the clubhouse who averaged 23 homers and 81 RBI in seven major league seasons before joining the Nationals. He'll come into spring training eight months removed from surgery to repair the torn labrum in his left shoulder that zapped his power and wasted his first year in Washington.
The enthusiasm that was present at the end of Washington's 80-81 2011 campaign still is prevalent as the Nationals prepare to report to Viera, Fla., in 26 days. They won't find a portly 27-year-old slugger at the corner locker ready to contribute his 30-plus home runs per season to their offense, but they will find much the same team they expected to have when their optimism raged at the end of 2011.
"We want to win a World Series," Morse said back in September. "In order to start winning World Series, you've got to win the division. That's our number one goal and I think we're getting closer and closer to that."
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.