September/October: It's been an underlying thread in reports on the Washington Nationals' winter plans since before the 2011 season even ended. ESPN.com's Jayson Stark, in a September 9th edition of his "Rumblings and Grumblings" column wrote that those, "... who have concluded that the Nationals won't have any interest in," either of the big free agent first baseman on the market, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, "... just because of the emergence of Mike Morse and the second guaranteed year of Adam LaRoche's contract, may be underestimating Rizzo's drive to build something great."
"'Without discussing either of the two monster free-agent first basemen (Pujols and Prince Fielder) by name," Mr. Stark wrote, the Nats' GM told the ESPN writer first base wasn't the biggest need for the Nationals, "'... but you never want to say never,'" Rizzo said, "'You never know.'" "The Nats believe they are on the verge of being a winner and can become a big-market team if they are regular contenders," the New York Post's Joel Sherman wrote in an October 14th article. Though the idea of the Nats pursuing CC Sabathia was the focus of the article, the New York Newsday writer concluded his thoughts on the Nationals by writing that, "... there is an expectation that Washington's big money this offseason is targeted toward Prince Fielder."
• November: Publicly, at least, the Nationals continued to dismiss the idea of pursuing a big bat at first. LaRoche, however, told MLB.com's Bill Ladson at the time, in an article entitled, "LaRoche getting closer to baseball activities", that,"... the Nationals didn't promise that he would play every day at the position next season." In a late October interview with the D.C. press corps, Rizzo spoke to reporters about LaRoche as if he'd be the starting first baseman in 2012. "[LaRoche] started throwing just last week," Rizzo said, "He will be [on] a throwing program and building up to prepare for Spring Training, and he should be full go at Spring Training is the word that I got from not only from Adam but from our medical staff."
• December: A month ago, however, both FOXSports.com's Ken Rosenthal and Jon Morosi placed Washington on a list of teams with interest in Prince Fielder. "Fielder, 27, is the Nationals’ primary target, at least among offensive players," Mr. Rosenthal wrote in an article entitled, "MLB: Nats show interest in Fielder, Cespedes." Fielder, "... has been pursued by a group believed to include the Cubs, Nationals, Rangers and Mariners," Mr. Morosi wrote. By mid-December, FOXSports.com's Mr. Rosenthal had come to the conclusion that the race for Fielder was down to Seattle and Chicago (NL). However, "Some executives still expect Fielder to hear from the Nationals," Mr. Rosenthal wrote in an article entitled, "Fielder should be Cubs' player to lose", before adding that the Nats have been, "the preferred ATM of the Scott Boras Corporation in recent years."
In a press conference after Washington acquired left-hander Gio Gonzalez from the Oakland A's, the Nationals' GM said, "That is correct," when asked if LaRoche would be at first base for the Nats in 2012. The general manager said the team was expecting to improve upon the team's 80-81 2011 season even without the addition of a big name free agent. "Hopefully Ryan Zimmerman is there for the full complement of games," Rizzo said, "We hope that Adam LaRoche is there and has a typical Adam LaRoche season. We hope that Jayson Werth has a typical Jayson Werth season."
But, the D.C. GM added, the Nats are still keeping an open mind, and, "... if something bigger that's acquire-able is something that helps our ballclub and that fits for us in the long-term we'll certainly look into doing something like that." The rumors persisted, and Rizzo once again addressed them in an MLB Network Radio interview with Mike Ferrin. "Adam LaRoche is under contract for us," Rizzo said, "We're paying him a lot of money to play first base for us next year,":
"We feel that he's going to have a bounce-back season. We just want him to have his career norms, .265 [AVG], 25 [HR's], 85-100 RBI's and play great defense. We feel that his shoulder is rehabbed. He's 100% and talking to him just recently, he feels great and he's ready to contribute [for] us in 2012. As far as, 'Are we going to dabble our toe in that water [Fielder],' those are decisions that we make early on in the process and we've 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."
• December/January: The continued presence of the caveats in the Nats' GM's statements led many to believe pursuing Prince was still a possibility. "There is a broad assumption among a lot of baseball executives that eventually, Prince Fielder's most attractive offer will come from the Nationals," ESPN.com's Buster Olney in a late-December article. "Last spring, we wrote about Fielder and Washington," Boston Globe writer Nick Cafardo wrote this past 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."
An unidentified National told CBSSports.com's Jon Heyman last week that the Nationals were in the mix for Fielder. Baltimore Sun writer Dan Connolly reported that a source told him Prince Fielder and Scott Boras had visited the D.C./Baltimore area during their recent tour of prospective suitors. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Tom Haudricourt wrote Monday that, "An MLB official told me over the weekend that word is spreading in the industry that the Washington Nationals have emerged as a favorite to sign free-agent first baseman Prince Fielder."
Tuesday afternoon, MLB.com writer Bill Ladson too wrote, in an article entitled, "Nats meet with Boras, in running to sign Prince", that, "The Nationals are in the Prince Fielder sweepstakes." Washington was one stop on their recent tour. Mr. Ladson wrote that, "... ownership recently visited with Fielder's agent, Scott Boras, in the nation's capital." Fielder's agent declined to comment on the report and wouldn't confirm or deny the identities of any of the teams he and his client visited. LaRoche, asked about the rumors in an article entitled, "LaRoche uncertain about future in Washington", told MLB.com's Mr. Ladson he'd heard the chatter and, "If it does [happen] and I need to move on,":
"Hey, it's a business move. They are trying to put the best possible team on the field. I think they feel like their time is now to get to the top of the division. Hopefully, I'll be a part of it. If not, that's life."
FOXSports.com's Ken Rosenthal, four months after ESPN.com's Jayson Stark said the same, dismissed the idea that LaRoche and the $9M he's owed this year would stop the Nationals' pursuit of Fielder as "silliness", writing in an article this past Monday entitled, "Money no issue as Nats pursue Fielder", that the Nats' tv revenue from MASN is expected to, "double, triple or more," in the near future, providing Washington with all the money they'd need to sign Fielder. Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell, however, wrote in a chat yesterday that he wasn't so sure the Nats' owners would spend money they think they'll have soon:
"The Lerners leery are of spending before the revenue is actually in hand. They seldom speculate on what is 'probably' going to happen __with more $ from MASN and more attendance. They have to see it first."
You'll forgive Nats fans and writers covering the team if they're wary, or if they take a wait and see approach in spite of all the rumors from baseball writers outside the nation's capital. The Nationals were "in the mix" for big name free agents like Mark Teixeira and Cliff Lee, reportedly, before they signed elsewhere, and in the case of the one big free agent they actually signed, the Nationals were under the radar as a suitor until just before Jayson Werth agreed to a 7-year/$126 million dollar deal. All this build-up seems like a set-up for a letdown.