- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Washington Nationals’ interest in Prince Fielder was real and it was strong. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said Wednesday, one day after Fielder signed a nine-year, $214 million deal with the Detroit Tigers, that the Nationals were in the negotiations for the first baseman until “very close to when he signed,” but ultimately the price exceeded a threshold the Nationals were comfortable with.

“Were we interested in him? There’s no question about it,” Rizzo said. “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. Prince is a terrific player, and he got paid like the superstar that he is.”

The Nationals were long-rumored to be in heavy on Fielder despite a quiet stance on the topic publicly. Team sources maintained the Nationals’ reluctance to jump all-in on a very long-term deal — and nine years was clearly over their limit. Rizzo met with Fielder’s agent, Scott Boras, on several occasions, he said, and admitted to meeting face-to-face with Fielder once as well but declined to divulge whether he made a formal offer.

“I felt that we were players,” Rizzo said. “We were being aggressive in the negotiations … but it’s an unpredictable process, and you don’t know what deals are out there, and you don’t know what is fact and what is fiction.”

Unlike last offseason when the Nationals acknowledged that they were paying over-market value for one of the top free agents, Jayson Werth, they’ve displayed a strategy of prudence and caution with their plans this year. When it came to left-hander Mark Buehrle, the Nationals weren’t willing to offer a fourth year. With Fielder, Rizzo wouldn’t reveal the precise limit, but what the Tigers ultimately gave was certainly over it.

“I had parameters set in my mind with what my threshold was for the player, and once it exceeded that threshold, we felt that if the market didn’t come back to us, we were out of it,” Rizzo said. “We feel that we no longer have to beg and overpay for players to come to us. We feel that this is becoming an attractive place for major league players to play.

“Secondly, we have options at that particular position. Two very good players that can play first base for us and that’s not even dipping into our minor league system. We think Adam LaRoche is the player that we signed two years ago … and if he’s not 100 percent healthy, which we believe he is, we certainly know that Mike Morse can handle the position offensively and defensively.”

So how did the Nationals pursuit of Fielder come about? After all, the team went into the offseason saying its top needs were a front-line starting pitcher and a center fielder, and first base wasn’t a vacancy that needed addressing. It happened slowly, Rizzo said, and when they looked at the market for Fielder and saw an opportunity, they decided to try and seize it.

“It’s very unpredictable,” Rizzo said. “We thought we saw an opportunity to really improve ourselves, to accelerate our improvement curve, by the signing of a player we thought was a good fit for us. We loved the player. The process that went through the winter, it varied from what we thought we were going to do at the beginning of the offseason, but we thought it was a good opportunity to really accelerate our program and take us to a different level.

One of the Nationals’ other desires this offseason was a bat to help beef up their lineup. With Fielder finally tied up elsewhere and the Nationals mainly looking to “tweak” their roster from now until spring training, Rizzo said he expects that help to come from within.

“I think that other bat may be a healthy Adam LaRoche, a healthy, full season of Ryan Zimmerman and a back to Jayson Werth, Jayson Werth,” he said. “I think with the maturation of our young core of [Wilson] Ramos, [Danny] Espinosa, [Ian] Desmond getting better just by maturing and playing another season and with the continued success of Morse, I think we have addressed the offensive part.

“And we do have a power left-handed bat by the name of Bryce Harper waiting in the wings to be fully developed and help us on the big league level.”