Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 1/5/12

One offseason removed from signing Jayson Werth to a 7 year, $126 million contract, the Washington Nationals are looking poised to make another splash. They are going strong in the bidding for Prince Fielder, and considering that they are reworking their television contract to get at least double the amount of money they are currently receiving ($26 million/year), they certainly seem to have the money to do it.

So to answer the title of this post, if money isn’t an issue, why shouldn’t the Nationals pursue Fielder? He’s the best player left on the free agent market, and the free agent class of 2013 is relatively barren at first base. Fielder is young, powerful, and a star — surely he’d be a good investment?

As we all know, though, teams need to put more thought into their decisions than that. In particular, there are two important questions to answer before we can properly evaluate if pursuing Fielder is in the Nats’ best interests: how close are they to contention, and how would Fielder’s signing impact the rest of their roster?

The first question — how close the Nats are to contention — is surprisingly tricky to answer. The Nationals won 80 games last season, outperformed their preseason projections (which had pegged them as around a low-70s win team), but that performance doesn’t look like a fluke. They have a roster full of intriguing young players, leaving them very few holes in their daily lineup. Zimmerman and Werth are both stars (and should both perform better than they did last year), and Wilson Ramos, Ian Desmond, and Danny Espinosa give the Nats a core that’s A) quite good, and B) cheap and under team control for a number of years.

It’s not like the Nationals’ pitching is weak, either. Their bullpen posted a 3.20 ERA and 3.66 FIP last season, and the key members of that group are all returning: Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, and Henry Rodriguez. Their rotation also looks particularly dominant, as Gio Gonzalez should thrive in the NL East and Stephen Strasburg will hopefully stay healthy. Jordan Zimmermann looks like he could become a front of the rotation starter (3.18 ERA, 3.16 FIP), and John Lannon and Chien-Ming Wang are more than capable #4 and #5 starters with some upside.

All this is to say, the Nationals are a good team. Even without Fielder, they look like they have the potential to be a mid-80s win team. The problem is that they’re also a very high variance team, meaning they have a large degree of uncertainty in their projections. Will Strasburg stay healthy all season long? How well will he pitch? How much will Werth and Zimmerman bounce back? How will their young players continue to develop? Their season could go any number of ways depending on the outcome of some of these questions.

Using Sky Kalkman’s WAR Calculator, I ran through some basic projections for the Nationals 2012 squad. I used the Bill James projections (which we all know are optimistic like woh), estimated playing time based on the Fan Projections, and tried to compensate when the results seemed waaay optimistic (e.g. Strasburg’s 2.88 ERA in 165 innings). Using this scenario — which assumes the Nationals sign Fielder and everyone on the team performs well — the Nationals project as around a 91-92 win team.

This is a very rosy projection, though, so I expect a more rigorous projection would put the Nationals somewhere in the 86-87 win level with Fielder. That’s good enough to be in playoff contention, but even that much of an improvement may not be enough to raise them higher than fourth in the NL East. The Phillies and Braves are both still dominant teams, and the Marlins look like they’ll have a similar talent level as the Nats (with Fielder) after all their offseason acquisitions. Those two clubs may end up dueling each other out for that final Wild Card slot.

But there’s one main problem with the Nationals signing Fielder: their roster construction. And no, I’m not talking about Adam LaRoche.

If the Nationals do sign Fielder, they will likely end up eating Adam LaRoche’s $8 million salary for 2012, either trading him away for peanuts or using him as a glorified bench player. But what will happen to the player that filled in so well for LaRoche last season, Michael Morse? Morse broke out last season and was the Nats’ best offensive player, hitting 31 homeruns and posting a .387 wOBA, and he’s under team control through the 2013 season. While Morse will likely regress in 2012, he still projects to around a .350-.360 wOBA and 2.5 WAR (he’s pretty horrible on defense). That’s not the type of player you want to just toss aside.

Morse could play in left field for the Nationals next season, but he won’t be able to stay there for long; Bryce Harper is rising through the minors like a shot, and he could easily reach the majors by the end of 2012. Unless the Nationals think Harper can play centerfield — and all indications are that they want him in a corner outfield spot — then by signing Fielder, the Nationals may be making not one, but two players on their roster obsolete.

It may not be the sexiest move, but the best move for the Nationals could be to pass on Fielder and to reallocate those funds into signing a center fielder after the 2012 season. They have a glaring organizational hole in center, and they could arguably make their team just as good while taking on less risk and spending less money:

Of course, if the Nationals decide they have enough money to buy both Fielder and a centerfielder, then that changes things. But I find it hard to believe that a new television deal will give them that much flexibility, especially if they want to resign Ryan Zimmerman to another extension soon (FA after 2013). They could easily sign an elite centerfielder next offseason, keep Morse’s powerful bat around, and use their leftover money to improve their team in other areas. Or they could sign Fielder.

Signing Prince Fielder would allow the Nationals to go all-in and compete in 2012, but he would come at a steep price — not only monetarily, but also in negative externalities. His signing would considerably decrease Michael Morse’s value (both to the Nationals and via a trade), and it could make it difficult for the Nationals to improve their center field situation.

That’s not to say the Nationals shouldn’t sign Fielder — merely that these are the sort of variables that they need to consider in making their decision. I don’t think I’d do it if I were them, but only their front office knows how much budget space they anticipate having in the future. Either way, the Nationals should be an exciting, surprising team in 2012. For the first time in a while, their franchise is looking headed in a very positive direction.

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