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The market for free agent Prince Fielder hasn't developed as everyone expected.
Having the ability to lock up the biggest name remaining on the free-agent market, however, doesn't always lead to actually acquiring said player. Nor does it always make such a blockbuster move the right one.
For months now, every prominent national baseball writer out there has speculated Fielder will land in Washington. The rationale: The Nationals have plenty of money, are trying to push themselves into contender-status and have a history of signing players represented by Scott Boras to very large deals.
To date, though, this has amounted to little more than speculation and rumor. The only sources cited to this point have been "executives from other clubs" and "MLB officials" who say "word is spreading in the industry" that the Nationals are "frontrunners" for Fielder, along with one anonymous Nats player who told one writer "we're in the market" for the 27-year-old first baseman.
What you haven't read are any reports citing members of the Nationals' front office pursuing Fielder (though you have read several citing those front-office sources shooting down the likelihood of Prince coming to D.C., including right here).
So what's really going on? Are Nationals execs flat-out lying to beat writers? Are national baseball writers either getting duped or simply spreading the same rumor and chatter that apparently is sweeping through the sport but doesn't appear to be grounded in any factual evidence?
Here's the trouble we all face when trying to decipher what is taking place behind the scenes during one of the stranger Hot Stove Leagues we've seen in quite some time: There are only a handful of people out there who truly know what is happening. There are perhaps a couple of executives at the highest level of the Nationals franchise. There are Boras and perhaps a couple of his top lieutenants. And there is Fielder himself.
Everyone else is merely speculating or spreading whatever tidbits of information they've read or been told. It's like an endless circle of rumor that is stuck on one track and can't change course.
Something else to remember: Anybody who is divulging -- or, for that matter, not divulging -- any of these bits of information has a motivation.
The Boras camp wants to make it sound like the market for Fielder is more robust than perhaps it really is, hoping it will drive his price up and convince one owner to make a major commitment now before someone else can scoop him up. He's an absolute master at this, and anyone who believes Fielder is going to wind up signing for far fewer years or dollars than originally expected hasn't been paying attention to the Boras gameplan over the years. He rarely, if ever, settles for less than he wants.
The Nationals, meanwhile, want to stay as mum on the subject as they can, for one of two reasons: 1) They really do believe they're in the running for Fielder and don't want the world to know it, or 2) They want the rest of baseball to believe they're in this, and in the process will help drive up the price some other club will have to pay. (Remember the complete lack of information coming out of South Capitol Street during the Yu Darvish bidding process? If the Rangers believed the Nats were in the mix, even though they really weren't, they might well have spent more money to win rights to the Japanese pitcher than was necessary.)
There are some factors to keep in mind when deciding which rumors to believe and which ones to dismiss.
1. This isn't really about Adam LaRoche. Yes, he's signed for $8 million this year (plus a $1 million buyout for 2013), and that money would be flushed down the toilet if the Nationals acquired Fielder. But nobody in the Nats' front office is trying to claim this team wouldn't be better with Fielder at first base in 2012 than LaRoche.
2. This is more about Michael Morse (and Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper). Common sense has said all along that Morse will wind up at first base at some point, either later this season or in 2013. That's because the Nationals believe Harper is nearly ready for the big leagues, and both he and Werth will have to play corner outfield positions. They may go with Werth in center field for one year, maybe two at most, but not more than that. Morse, meanwhile, is eligible for free agency in two years. If the Nats have any interest in re-signing their 2011 MVP, they really can't sign any first baseman to a long-term contract.
3. This is also about Ryan Zimmerman. We all know Zim has two years remaining on his contract, and we all know both he and the Nationals want to work out a long-term extension at some point in the near future. Well, if they wind up signing Fielder for $150 million-plus, the prospects of keeping Zimmerman in D.C. diminish by a significant amount. But wait, don't the Lerners have tons of money to spend on payroll? Yes, but only to an extent...
Consider that the Nationals already are paying Werth $20 million-plus in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. Fielder would also cost that much, perhaps has much as $25 million per season over that same span. Zimmerman figures to command $20 million per season himself over at least seven or eight years. Do the math. Are the Nationals willing to devote $65 million a year to only three players for at least four years?
Guess how many MLB clubs currently do that? Three. The Yankees are committing anywhere from $68 million to $72 million in 2014, 2015 and 2016 to Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira. The Phillies will pay $65 million to Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Ryan Howard in 2013 (but only 2013). And the Angels are on the hook for $65 million in 2016 (but only 2016) to Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver.
That's it. The Red Sox don't have three players making $20 million per season at the same time. Neither do the Rangers, the Tigers, the Cubs, the Cardinals or the Dodgers.
Are the Nationals -- who still have to take care of Stephen Strasburg, Harper, Morse, Jordan Zimmermann and others at some point -- prepared to enter that stratosphere of the highest-payroll franchises in baseball? If they aren't but they still sign Fielder, it's going to be nearly impossible for them to keep Zimmerman and those other young cornerstones in curly W caps.
Add all those factors together, and you quickly understand why no one within the organization is saying the Nationals are serious contenders for Fielder. Those "executives from other clubs" and "MLB officials" being cited elsewhere probably don't have the same grasp on the situation.
In the end, the only ones who truly know if the Nationals are going to sign Fielder are the Nationals themselves. Prince isn't going to be forced upon them. Ted Lerner, Mark Lerner, Mike Rizzo and Davey Johnson hold the cards. If they decide to make a better offer than anyone else, they can have the player.
You better believe, though, those four gentlemen understand the ramifications of such a move, and have taken into consideration all the potential drawbacks to signing the biggest name still on the market.