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Washington Nationals Winter 2012 Preview: Prince Fielder, Yoenis Cespedes, Etc.

D.C. GM Mike Rizzo admitted this week, in an MLB Network Radio interview, that though they've considered trades and explored the market for center fielders this winter, the Washington Nationals recognize that, ".. the 2013 free agent class at center field is much stronger than it is for the 2012 season," so the winter of 2011/12 might not be the time to find what they're after. The Nats believe they can put Jayson Werth in center if they have to, which would allow Washington to try for the center fielder/leadoff man next winter or allow them to look at a larger field of candidates from among the available corner outfielders this winter.

Of course, there is one center field option still out there in soon-to-be free agent outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. In writing about the pursuit of Prince Fielder and examining the pros and cons of such an investment, Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell, in an article entitled, "Prince Fielder’s price is not right for Nationals right now", suggested that the Nats could wait to sign the center fielder they want in 2013 or for less than it would cost to sign the free agent first baseman, "...not only finish the [Ryan] Zimmerman extension far past ’13, but, with room to spare, also sign Cuban center fielder Yoenis Cespedes."

There's been very little public discussion about the Face of the Nats' franchise's extension. He's signed through 2013. Beyond that? Rizzo talked about Cespedes this past week though in an interview with ESPN980's Thom Loverro and Kevin Sheehan, telling the Sports Fix hosts the Nats had scouted the 26-year-old Cuban slugger extensively, but questions remained.

"Can he stay in CF with that big, physical frame of his?" Rizzo asked rhetorically, "That's one question. You always have the question of, 'What level of play do you see him play in those international tournaments?' and, 'Can he handle the everyday grind of a major league season?'" With the kind of contract being discussed, Rizzo said, "Those are all questions that you need to feel very, very comfortable with and if you're not, this is somebody you should not walk away from, [but] run away from."

Boston Globe writer Nick Cafardo wrote much the same in his weekly Sunday "Baseball Notes" column today, noting that even though some in baseball were "drooling" over the prospect of signing the HR-hitting Cuban outfielder, "... there are an awful lot of scouts and evaluators who don’t want to stake their reputation on a $50 million outlay for the center fielder, who is hard to evaluate based on the competition he has faced." Mr. Cafardo writes that rather than spend the rumored $50-$60 million on Cespedes, "Some scouts appear more comfortable with Jorge Soler, who would come at a cheaper price (around $20 million) and with lower expectations."

Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore, among others, has written about the Nats' interest in Soler, a 19-year-old Cuban defector who's a lot more of a project than the 26-year-old Cespedes. And if they can't find an outfielder that fits their needs on the international free agent market, as Rizzo reminded everyone last week, there's always that other 19-year-old kid, Bryce Harper already in the system.

Rizzo also reminded everyone in an MLB Network Radio interview last week that though the Nats had at least considered the possibility of adding a big free agent bat at first, they had, "...more or less decided that Adam [LaRoche] is going to be our first baseman, unless something extraordinary, out of the ordinary happened that's how we're going to go to Spring Training." As the Boston Globe's Mr. Cafardo noted again, however, the rumors of Washington's interest in Fielder have continued for some time. "Last spring, we wrote about Fielder and Washington," Mr. Cafardo wrote Sunday, "and there were a lot of denials over the months that followed. Now we’re back to Washington being in the lead for him."

The reports by Baltimore Sun writer Dan Connolly this weekend that the Baltimore/Washington area was one of the stops on Fielder and agent Scott Boras' recent tour of MLB cities only led to more speculation about whether or not the Nationals are quietly pursuing the 5'11'', 275lb free agent first baseman.'s Buster Olney too, wrote just after Christmas that, "There is a broad assumption among a lot of baseball executives that eventually, Prince Fielder's most attractive offer will come from the Nationals," and if they were to add Fielder, Mr. Olney wrote this morning in an article entitled, "Rays top New Year's Power Rankings", he believes, "... there would immediately be a shift in the baseball landscape."

With Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Michael Morse, Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond and eventually Bryce Harper already in the organization, they're close to the Top 10 in the Power Rankings, but Mr. Olney wrote that, "The Nationals... would jump into the top 10 if they signed Fielder." Mr. Olney's recently ranked the Nationals as having the 8th Best Rotation in baseball after acquiring Gio Gonzalez to go along with Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann. The Nationals were also 8th overall on Mr. Olney's list of "MLB's Top 10 bullpens", and 9th overall on his list of the Top 10 infields.

All around baseball, scouts and writers are impressed with what Rizzo's front office has been able to build thus far in the nation's capital. What Rizzo and co. are able to add over the next month or two could determine if the future is now for the Nationals or still a year away...