MLB Free Agency: Prince Fielder to DC Would Make Nationals Instant Contenders

Avi Wolfman-Arent@@awolfmancomethCorrespondent IIJanuary 4, 2012

ST LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 13:  Prince Fielder #28 of the Milwaukee Brewers gestures after he hit a double in the top of the fourth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals during Game 4 of the National League Championship Series at Busch Stadium on October 13, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Should recent revelations that the Washington Nationals lead the Prince Fielder sweepstakes consummate in a deal, then the Nationals—wait for it—will make the Major League Baseball postseason in 2012.

Pardon the formality, but the terms "Nationals" and "playoffs" needed the introduction.

Since moving to Washington in 2005, the Nats haven't sniffed the postseason, struggling to distance themselves from the bottom-feeder mentality and aging core bequeathed to them by the Montreal Expos.

Signing Fielder—the only marquee player on this year's free-agent market entering his prime—would do both, reinforcing the tones of sincerity sent out by last year's Jayson Werth deal while lending the lineup much needed punch.

The latter applies to whichever team lands Fielder this offseason.

Indeed he is a rare breed, a 27-year-old with 230 home runs to his name and a career .981 OPS. He has patience, power and youth—the holy triumvirate of hitting prowess—and projects as one of the game's best sluggers over the next five seasons.

But the fact that Fielder, good as he is, vaults the Nationals into contention says more about the state of the Nationals than it does the excellence of Prince.

In 2011, the Washington Nationals went 80-81 and finished with a run differential better than minus-20 for the first time since moving from Montreal. It was in large part due to a pitching staff that allowed only 643 runs—the franchise's best mark in a 162-game season since 1992, when Dennis Martinez and Ken Hill headed the Expos staff.

It had been a while.

All that was without presumptive ace Stephen Strasburg and newly acquired lefty Gio Gonzalez in the starting rotation. If both are healthy and humming, the Nationals rotation should improve on their hallmark 2011 campaign.

Things were less cheery on the other side of the ball for the 2011 Nationals. Washington finished 12th in the National League in runs scored, due in part to poor play by free-agent outfielder Jayson Werth and injuries to Ryan Zimmerman.

But the bones are there for something special, especially with the potential addition of Fielder. A lineup with Werth—provided he regains respectability—Zimmerman, Fielder and 2011 breakout star Michael Morse could be the division's best.

Factor in the eventual ascendance of prized prospect Bryce Harper, the high-value power of second baseman Danny Espinosa and the promising bat of Wilson Ramos, and the future shines even brighter.

Werth, at age 32, is the oldest of the bunch, meaning the core could grow together much the same way the Phillies trio of Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard grew during the Phillies recent run of dominance. For the Nationals, adding Fielder would give them an enviable combination of homegrown talent and proven hired help.

The ingredients are there for improvement on both sides of the ball. In the Nationals' current state, improvement means playoffs or something in the general vicinity thereof.

But more than metrics, signing Prince Fielder would demarcate a new phase in the Nationals' long climb to contention—the end phase.

Sinking $200 million in Fielder would require the Nationals supplement their spending with whatever other components this team needs to win. Management cannot, and will not, invest so much in one player only to about face if the deal doesn't work.

If Fielder isn't enough, the Nationals will get more. That's what teams with $200-million players and budding fan interest do—they ride the big wave.

It is also the end phase of a painstaking exorcism, one the Nationals and their fans endured for seven long seasons in order to extinguish the remnants of their Expo past.

Relocated teams always live, at least for a time, with the ghost of the team that preceded them.

WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 2:   Felipe Lopez #2 of the Washington Nationals catches a pop fly in front of Ronnie Belliard #10 in the sixth inning against the San Francisco Giants on September 2, 2007 at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC. The Nationals won the gam
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

For those that watched the team bumble about RFK stadium in their inaugural years—and I was among them—there was no sense that one was watching the Washington Nationals. These were the Montreal Expos—in different stripes sure, but Expos all the same.

They were a team run on the cheap with little hope of improvement, playing inside a hastily reanimated stadium meant only to provide temporary shelter in their midnight exodus from Canada.

A new stadium marked the first step in establishing some brand known as Nationals baseball. Things were shiny, new and emblazoned to the utmost with curly "W"s.

Folks walked into that park to see the Washington Nationals play baseball. The team, at long last, was theirs.

Management built on that momentum by drafting, courting and paying Stephen Strasburg. With Strasburg in a Nationals uniform, the oft-talked-about future had a name, a face and a fastball.

The Nationals, for the first time since moving to the nation's capital, were relevant.

Signing Werth, bad a baseball decision as it was, was the next sign of life. In it, new ownership proved it would front the money needed to sustain success.

Trading for Gio Gonzalez this winter signaled yet another foot forward. For once the Nationals were on the "one" side of a four-for-one trade, pledging nascent faith in a present they'd rarely, if ever, acknowledged before.

And now this, this Prince Fielder news, is the final domino to fall. He's the player everyone wants, and the Nationals just might get him.

The Nationals, except for a brief flirtation with Mark Teixeira, have never been in that position before. They haven't been front-runners, not in this or anything else.

Hard as it is for long-suffering D.C. baseball fans to process, Prince Fielder is the final bridge on the winding road to excellence. Sign him, and the franchise pledged to this city seven years ago will have finally arrived.