How close were the Washington Nationals to a deal for Prince Fielder? "All along, we were satisfied and happy with the position of first base with what we've got," D.C. GM Mike Rizzo said Wednesday afternoon after he introduced the newest Nats' starter Gio Gonzalez to the nation's capital. "Does Prince Fielder improve any ballclub he's with?" Rizzo asked rhetorically, "There's no question about it. Were we interested in him? There's no question about it. We were in the negotiations until it didn't make sense for us to be in the negotiations any longer and so we had to back out. Prince is a terrific player, got payed like the superstar that he is, and congratulations to the Detroit Tigers, they just got a lot better."
"I had parameters set in my mind of what my threshold was for the player," the Nats' general manager said, though he declined to say what that threshold was, "And once it exceeded that threshold then we felt that if the market didn't come back to us that we were out of it." Rizzo did, however, say that Washington remained in the mix until "very close" to the time when Fielder finally signed a 9-year/$214M dollar deal. (ed. note - "ESPN.com's Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) wrote this afternoon on Twitter that his sources told him, "The Nationals were never close to winning the Prince Fielder bidding. They only got as far as discussing parameters, never specifics.")
As for why the Nationals got involved in the Fielder market if they had first base options, the GM explained that, "It's very unpredictable. We thought we saw an opportunity to really improve ourselves, to accelerate our improvement curve by the signing of the player, we thought that it was a good fit for us, we loved the player, so we did our due diligence and went through the process and met with him. On several occasions I met with the agent, on one occasion met with the player, and the process that went through the winter, it varied from what we thought we were going to do at the beginning of the season, but we thought it was a good opportunity to really accelerate our program and take us to a different level."
Though they didn't land the big slugging first baseman, the Nats' GM said things were different now than they were last winter when they had to overpay to get Jayson Werth to join a team that didn't necessarily have a winning tradition. "We feel that we no longer have to beg and overpay for players to come to us," Rizzo told reporters today, "We feel that this is becoming an attractive place for major league players to play and Jayson Werth's signing has a lot to do with that."
"We acquired a major free agent to come here with a 69-win team," the Nationals' general manager explained, "We've performed much better and shown that the organization is in much better shape," but when it came to the pursuit of Fielder, as opposed to Werth where the outfielder filled a big hole in the lineup, at first base, Rizzo said, "We have options at that particular position. We feel that we have very good options. We have 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, that's 25 [HR's] and 85 [RBI's], Gold Glove-caliber first baseman, and if he's not 100% healthy, which we believe he is, he says he is, he's going to be ready for Spring Training, we certainly know that Michael Morse can handle the position offensively and defensively."
If signing Werth made a statement about the organization, what did all the rumors tying the Nationals to Prince Fielder and the negotiations they had say about how the perception of the team has changed? "I think it makes the statement that we're in this," Rizzo said, "We're in to win and we have the resources to go after some of the elite players in the game and it also tells the statement that we're going to do what we have to do to win, but it's going to have to work for us in the long-term and [it says] that we're a team that's turning a corner, and the needle's pointing up and it's going to be an attractive place for players to play."
"There [are] players that want to play here, that call, their agents call me," Rizzo said, "To come and play for the Washington Nationals and that is a 180 from where we were as early back as two years ago when we won 59 games." The Nats won 59 games in '08 and '09, 69 in 2010 and 80 in 2011, but they're not satisfied, and are apparently still looking to see what's out there that they can get in order to improve on the current roster.
The Nats started the winter saying they wanted a pitcher and a center fielder/leadoff bat. Having found the pitcher, are they still in the market for a bat? "I think that other bat may be a healthy Adam LaRoche. A healthy full season Ryan Zimmerman and a back-to-Jayson Werth-Jayson Werth," Rizzo said, "So, I think that with the maturation of our young core, of [Wilson] Ramos getting better, [Danny] Espinosa getting better, [Ian Desmond] getting better, just by maturing and playing another season and with the continued success of Morse, LaRoche getting better, Zim playing a full season and Jayson coming back to his career norms, I think we have addressed the offensive part and we do have a power left-handed bat by the name of Bryce Harper in the wings, waiting to be fully-developed and help us on the big league level."
Speaking of Bryce Harper. Davey Johnson's said he wants to bring the best team north after Spring Training, will Bryce Harper be a part of the Opening Day roster? "We're going to bring the best 25 north," the Nats' GM said, "If that includes Harper, it's Harper. When I believe Harper is ready to play in the big leagues, he'll be in the big leagues. We're not going to hinder his progress, but we're not going to accelerate it to a point that I think it endangers his development and curtails his overall performance."
The Nationals' GM made it sound like the search for a center fielder might be over for this winter, though he wouldn't say so definitively. "I think that we have candidates in house that we'll go to Spring Training with," Rizzo told reporters, "That's not to say that we've abandoned the search for the right fit for us. But, we like the options that we have going into Spring Training and we do have multiple options of what to play, be it Jayson Werth moving to center or a platoon system in center field. We're not satisfied with not getting the long-term solution that we had [wanted], but we're satisfied with the in-house candidates and we feel that we're going to field the right kind of team going into Spring Training."