- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Washington Nationals and Prince Fielder. Prince Fielder and the Washington Nationals. With each day that ends with the slugging first baseman still on the free agent market, the assumption grows that when it comes to Fielder and the Nationals the question is not if, but when? And for how much?

When will the Nationals lock up the prized power hitter? When will they add yet another Scott Boras client to their already brimming ranks of big-name players? When will their competitive status shift from a team that could be great to one that could be a slam-dunk playoff contender in a difficult division?

Not so fast. According to general manager Mike Rizzo, if the Nationals are the favorites to land Fielder now, it’s not because of any renewed push for the All-Star.

“Our position has not changed since the winter meetings, on Prince Fielder specifically,” Rizzo told The Washington Times on Thursday. “We feel we have a good first baseman in Adam LaRoche. We feel he’s 100 percent healthy and when he’s 100 percent we’re going to get the 25 home runs, 85-100 RBI and great defense at first base. We’re committed to him. We also have a backup plan at first base with Mike Morse.

“We feel that we’re settled at that position. But when I get asked the question: Does Prince Fielder help the club? Of course he helps the club. He’ll help any other club he’s with also. Nothing has changed since we discussed this stuff in the winter meetings. There are a lot of comments that we’re the frontrunners, and I don’t know where that comes from because we haven’t gone beyond where we were at since the winter meetings.”

The stance a month ago was that unless the price for Fielder — specifically in years — were to come down, Washington wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to fill a position it already had two capable players locked up to handle. At the winter meetings, the Nationals barely were involved in the Fielder conversation — which appeared somewhat muted to begin with, in comparison to the Albert Pujols negotiations. Reports of their interest were seemingly matched by just as many debunking them as heavy players. But as spring training draws nearer, the Fielder question has dominated the rumor mill — and often swept the Nationals in with it.

“It’s the free agent frenzy, I guess, at this time of year when a major free agent hasn’t signed,” Rizzo said. “[Everyone] will try and figure out where he fits best and our name is bandied about, especially when it’s a Boras client, all the time.”

It’s created a need for the Nationals to remind folks of their commitment to LaRoche, who is owed $8 million for 2012 and has a $10 million team option for 2013 (with a $1 million buyout), and for them to try and remain undeterred in accomplishing their main offseason goals, even as the Fielder sweepstakes continues to swirl around them.

That checklist remains unchanged. With pitchers and catchers due to report in just over six weeks, the Nationals are trying to determine where their roster stands and how they could best fill it out in that time span. The desire for a bona fide center fielder still exists but with a strong free agent class set to hit the market at that position in 2013 (and short of a possible bid on soon-to-be free agent Cuban Yoenis Cespedes), the Nationals remain satisfied with the possibility of giving Jayson Werth significant time there this season.

Otherwise, they’re evaluating other bench options and bullpen possibilities — any opportunities to create more depth heading into spring training at the right prices. And Boras, of course, represents other free agents — such as outfielder Rick Ankiel, who still is on the market and still a possibility for the Nationals. His stable of clients already on the 40-man roster consists of Stephen Strasburg, Werth, Bryce Harper, Danny Espinosa and Anthony Rendon.

The Nationals’ conversations with him are indeed frequent but not necessarily centered on Fielder.

“I don’t think we are close to anything yet,” Rizzo said, when asked about the team’s progress in filling out the rest of its roster. “I would say nothing is close or imminent, but we’re kind of treading through it and we’re being proactive.”

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

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