Washington Nationals: No Prince Fielder, But An Extended Ryan Zimmerman? Bryce Harper In RF?

What if the Washington Nationals opened the 2012 season with a newly-extended Ryan Zimmerman at third and the next-generation Face of the Franchise Bryce Harper in right field? D.C. GM Mike Rizzo told reporters last week that the reason the team decided to entertain thoughts of signing Prince Fielder was the belief that with the addition of the big slugging first baseman, "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." Fielder, of course, ended up signing in Detroit for 9-years/$214M dollars, which was more than the Nats were willing to commit to a player many see headed for a DH role long before that deal with the Tigers ends...

The Nationals had a stated goal of adding a pitcher and a center fielder/leadoff hitter this winter. The general manager admitted that the interest in Fielder, "... 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." Having failed to find the top-of-the-order-type outfielder they were after, and having missed out on what most consider a once-in-a-generation-type slugger, what do the Nats see themselves doing this season? Is this the "We can contend if..." season before the 2013 campaign in which they think they can really compete?

If Ian Desmond puts it all together finally. If Danny Espinosa continues to improve on what he did last season. If Wilson Ramos' development continues. If Michael Morse's late-career resurgence continues. If Ryan Zimmerman stays healthy for a full season. If Jayson Werth rebounds and plays like the Werth Washington thought they'd signed. If Adam LaRoche comes back at 100% and provides the Nationals with the, "... 25 [HR's] and 85 [RBI's] [and] Gold Glove-caliber," defense Rizzo said he's expecting. If Stephen Strasburg avoids any setbacks. If Jordan Zimmermann takes another step. If Gio Gonzalez cuts down on the walks, Chien-Ming Wang's shoulder is fully-recovered, John Lannan's able to keep his fastball down, Tyler Clippard's invis-ball remains invisible, Ross Detwiler has a breakout year...

There are a lot of ifs. Davey Johnson thinks the Nationals are ready to butt heads with the Phillies, Marlins and Braves for NL East supremacy as they're currently composed. Before any talk of Prince Fielder, the skipper was telling reporters as he did earlier this winter that the goal in 2012 was, "A pennant. Winning the pennant. Winning the division. Winning the National League."

"I couldn't have said that last Spring," the manager continued, "I didn't think the talent was ready, but after being there and seeing the progress that some of the young players made, I think we definitely can contend and I would be sorely disappointed if we didn't do just that." When Johnson was asked if he thought the outfielder Washington was after was out there this winter in an interview on 106.7 the FAN, the manager correctly predicted that, "I don't foresee us doing that in the free agent market," which they haven't yet, and asked about the idea of adding a big middle-of-the-order bat like Fielder's this winter, the 68-year-old veteran of 13 MLB seasons as a player and 15 as a manager said, "I think you've got to answer the question about how good are the guys you've got? They need to be up playing and playing at their top level. Then you think about adding somebody, that's the formula. You don't go out and do it, spend a lot of money right now to get some big masher."

The Nationals tried to get that masher, but didn't. The GM still thinks their offense can improve on the .242/.309/.383 line they posted as a team last season. "The talent's there," Johnson said in late October, "obviously we've got to do better than we did in certain areas. Offensively, [we] struck out too much, tried to do too much, didn't make pitchers throw the ball in the strike zone, didn't hit the fastball as well as we should have, a mountain of things, a few things defensively, but I think we definitely can get there and a good Spring Training and a good start...I like the way we stack up against everybody in our division."

"I think that with the maturation of our young core of Ramos getting better, Espinosa getting better, Desi getting better," the Nats' GM explained last week, "... 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."

Davey Johnson thinks Harper's likely ready now, as he's said all winter.

CBSSports.com's Jon Heyman (@JonHeymanCBS) wrote this afternoon that he'd, "Heard again Davey Johnson really wants Bryce Harper starting the year with #Nats as the RF." And according to ESPN.com's Jayson Stark, the Nationals, having missed out on Fielder, can, "... now turn their attention to wrapping up an extension with Ryan Zimmerman, which could happen any time now," which is what beat writers in D.C. heard last week, and then the Nats can find the CF they need next winter, when even Rizzo's stated the options are better. Would Fielder have made the Nats a contender immediately? Maybe. Were they already headed that way without him? The GM, manager and Face of the Franchise seem to think so. You?

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