Nationals stick to their plan

Nationals stick to their plan
January 25, 2012, 1:55 pm
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And so the strangest free-agent sweepstakes baseball has seen in a long time has ended. Prince Fielder is headed to Detroit, and here in Washington the debate rages on. Did the Nationals make the right move or the wrong move in failing to match the Tigers' nine-year, 214 million offer?

If you'd been paying attention all along, you knew the Nationals were never going to come close to offering a package that large to Fielder. Their interest in the 27-year-old slugger was minimal to begin with, and perhaps picked up only when it started to look like no team would meet agent Scott Boras' asking price.

Of course, that didn't prevent the masses from buying into the idea the Nationals were hot-and-heavy over Fielder, so much so that plenty of prominent baseball writers declared Washington the favorites to sign the big first baseman only minutes before news finally broke he had signed with a Tigers club that had never been mentioned seriously as a potential landing spot.

What in the world actually happened here? This quote from manager Davey Johnson to the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore perhaps best explains it: "I think a lot of it was Boras playing everybody," Johnson said. "There were a lot of teams -- and I think we're one of them -- that never made an offer."

Wait, Scott Boras managed to trick everyone into believing the Nationals and others were serious contenders for Fielder, all in an attempt to get the Tigers to panic and swoop in with a last-minute offer that blew every other one out of the water? That's so out of character for the super agent.

Or not. Come to think of it, that's perfectly in character for Boras. This whole saga came straight out of his playbook. He's been pulling out this flea-flicker for years, and it always results in a touchdown. Say what you want about the guy, but he's brilliant at what he does for a living.

The Nationals have dealt with Boras enough in recent years to know his modus operandi. They weren't fooled by the agent. If anything, general manager Mike Rizzo was happy to play along, saying throughout the process he was content with what he had at first base but never closing the door altogether. Might as well let everyone believe they were all-in on Fielder, perhaps helping jack up the price for a rival franchise.

Would they have made a move had Fielder been willing to accept a much smaller deal, something along the lines of five years and 125 million? Maybe. At some point, you just can't pass up the bargain of a lifetime.

But the Nationals never expected Fielder to be available at clearance prices. And so they never really altered their offseason plan of attack. A nine-figure first baseman wasn't on their shopping list, especially if his signing might hinder the franchise's ability to lock up other core players down the road. A frontline starting pitcher was. So was a center fielder.

They managed to cross off that first target when they acquired left-hander Gio Gonzalez from the Athletics for four prospects. (Gonzalez, by the way, will finally be introduced at Nationals Park today during a 3:30 p.m. press conference, more than a month after the trade was consummated.)

As for that center fielder ... well, he still hasn't been located. The combination of a weak free-agent class and unwilling trade partners left Rizzo to put that acquisition on the back-burner for now.

Which is actually a strategy that aligns well with the front office's grand plan. Truth be told, the Nationals know they're probably not ready to contend in 2012. Sure, if all the pieces fall into place, they could win 90 games and put themselves in the thick of the NL wild-card race.

But this is a franchise, remember, that still hasn't posted a winning record in seven seasons since arriving in D.C. That 80-81 mark last year represented a significant step forward, but there are several more steps to be taken to get from 80 wins to 90 wins.

Would Fielder's acquisition alone have been enough to catapult the Nationals into that stratosphere in 2012? Well, he certainly wouldn't have hurt their cause. But his mere presence wouldn't have offset the 160-inning limit on Stephen Strasburg, the lack of experience for Jordan Zimmermann and the fact Bryce Harper has yet to spend one day playing above Class AA.

Fast-forward one year from now, though, and none of those factors should come into play. Strasburg will be further removed from his Tommy John surgery and free to pitch a full season without being shut down for precautionary reasons. Zimmermann will have another year under his belt, too, and will have better-established himself as a front-line starter. And Harper will almost certainly have some big-league experience on his resume, not to mention an age that begins with the number 2 instead of the number 1.

Oh, and that center fielder the Nationals covet so much? There are several attractive options set to hit the open market next winter: Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton, Shane Victorino and others.

Let's face it, the Nationals haven't been positioning themselves to win big in 2012. They've been positioning themselves to really "go for it" in 2013.

That's not to suggest they're conceding this upcoming season, not in the least. As stated, if everything falls into place, this roster as currently constructed could be good enough to contend. And if that happens, Rizzo won't hesitate to do something at the July 31 trade deadline in an attempt to plug whatever holes they've got and make a serious run at a postseason berth.

But this is a front office that long ago formulated its plan for long-term success. When Rizzo took over as GM in 2009, he inherited a 59-win club with a barren farm system. He's no dummy; he knew it would take time to build this thing from the bottom up, climbing steps one at a time and not trying to leap straight to the top in one year.

And there were some roadblocks along the way, the elbow injuries to Strasburg and Zimmermann chief among them, that perhaps delayed the franchise's time frame by a year.

But the Nationals are finally nearing the finish line of this rebuilding project. It's so close, many could be tempted to alter course and try to find a quick shortcut.

Rizzo and the Lerner family, though, have kept moving forward on a straight line, perhaps pausing every once in a while to contemplate a shorter path to success but ultimately returning to their predetermined course.

That course would seem to intersect with a serious playoff run in 2013, not 2012. Is that a frustrating thought for fans who have endured through seven non-winning seasons and just want to experience success already? Sure.

But take comfort in this notion: The Nationals will be a better ballclub this season than they've been in any previous season in the District.

And they'll be even better than that one year from now.