- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 17, 2012

In the past few days, the Washington Nationals have been busy with housekeeping. They’ve extended Gio Gonzalez, a $42 million outlay that’ll keep the left-hander in Washington through at least 2016. They’ve given hefty raises to Jordan Zimmermann and Tyler Clippard in their first years of arbitration, and they boosted the salaries of lefty Tom Gorzelanny and catcher Jesus Flores with modest raises as well.

They’ve left themselves a little work to do with left-hander John Lannan and slugger Michael Morse, who failed to agree to salary terms before Tuesday’s deadline for an exchange of arbitration figures. Lannan asked for $5.7 million in arbitration and the Nationals countered at $5 million, while Morse filed at $5 million with the team offering $3.5 million, according to CBSSports.com. Deals still could be worked out before their cases go to a hearing.

But even with cautious estimates of what they will cost, the Nationals’ payroll is shaping up to be about $70 million — a minimal increase over the roughly $68 million they opened the year at in 2011.

Their moves this offseason have been few — Gonzalez’s addition the biggest newsmaker — but they’ve been ones that many feel have positioned them well for 2012. And in 32 days, they’ll all be reporting to Viera, Fla., to begin spring training for what could be the most anticipated season in team history.

So where, with less than a month to go before the warm Florida sun is welcoming baseball again, do the Nationals go to round out their offseason?

Prince Fielder’s doorstep is the predominant hope in the greater D.C. area.

It’s a theory that has been rumored, debated, shot down and brought back to life again. When it comes to Fielder, who could become the first free agent in history to sign a nine-figure contract this late in the offseason, the Nationals’ name never seems to be far behind. Their deep pockets — owner Ted Lerner is listed by Forbes as the richest owner in Major League Baseball — and well-known relationship with Fielder’s agent, Scott Boras, are two easy reasons for that connection.

They’ve met with Fielder and Boras at least twice — once in Washington and again at the owners’ meetings in Arizona last week, according to multiple reports. Their position, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said recently, “hadn’t changed” since the winter meetings. But their interest, which was made even more clear after a second meeting with ownership, remains.

Fielder, who lives in Orlando and attended high school near the Nationals’ spring training home, still apparently hasn’t found what he’s looking for. He was in Texas last weekend meeting with the Rangers, and his plan to embark on another tour of teams and owners was reported late last week as well.

Whether the slugging first baseman decides he likes what the Nationals are offering or chooses to go another route, Washington has options for filling out its roster.

The Nationals still are interested in bringing back outfielder Rick Ankiel, sources said, though their outfield configuration may make Ankiel an improper fit. There is some feeling that Ankiel won’t have the same level of offensive productivity if he’s used primarily as a bat off the bench. And they’re in the market for a veteran reliever as the asking prices begin to come down with spring training nearing.

Those are minor moves, though, compared to the windfall Fielder would bring to the team in terms of publicity and fan excitement. Many in the industry believe the holdup is Yu Darvish, the Japanese ace with whom the Rangers have until 5 p.m. Wednesday to negotiate. Texas might make a strong play for Fielder regardless, but losing out on Darvish could increase the Rangers’ interest in signing the first baseman.

Either way, until the man Boras has taken to calling ‘PF Flyer’ decides where he’d like to land, the Nationals’ offseason won’t be complete.

• Amanda Comak can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com.

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