So after all the build-up in recent weeks making them the favorites to land Prince Fielder, the Nationals surprisingly lost the slugging first baseman to out of left field (pun intended) bidder Detroit on Tuesday.

But is that such a tragedy? Fielder has been one of baseball’s biggest bats over the last six seasons, averaging 38 homers, 108 RBI and a .282 batting average for Milwaukee and it would be great to have him in Washington’s lineup for years to come.

However, the Tigers blew Fielder and agent Scott Boras away with a nine-year, $214 million contract. The Nats wouldn’t offer more than a seven-year deal out of a justified concern about what kind of shape Fielder — who turns 28 in May and packs a whopping 275 pounds on a 5-foot-11 frame — will be in at 35 and beyond.

Although Fielder has been amazingly durable so far, especially given his bulk, his father, former Detroit slugger Cecil Fielder, who was much smaller at 6-3 and 230 pounds, fell off at 33 and was done before his 35th birthday. And unlike the AL’s Tigers, the NL’s Nats can’t hide the big fella’s inevitable decreased mobility at DH.

Washington owner Ted Lerner and general manager Mike Rizzo also had to be a little wary about giving exorbitant money to another free agent a year after their seven-year, $126 million deal for the admittedly much less accomplished Jayson Werth was a bust.

While it’s disappointing that the Nats will head into spring training with virtually the same lineup that went 80-81 last season, that’s not necessarily horrible news.

Adam LaRoche, who endured a disastrous first quarter in his Washington debut before succumbing to a season-ending shoulder injury, will re-assume first base duties and, although 32, is expected to return to the solid form he displayed during his previous seven seasons with Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Boston and Arizona.

All-Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman should also bounce back after an injury-hampered 2011 while the double-play combination of Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa and catcher Wilson Ramos are all under 27 and should continue to develop at the plate.

Michael Morse had a breakout season in LaRoche’s place in 2011 and will return to the outfield where he’ll be joined by the previously reliable Werth and — perhaps by mid-season — Bryce Harper, the 19-year-old who was the top overall pick in the 2010 draft.

On the mound, the Nats traded with Oakland for rising lefthander Gio Gonzalez, 26. He joins a rotation that already included: fireballer Stephen Strasburg, 23, the No. 1 overall selection in 2009 and a rookie phenom in 2010; Jordan Zimmermann, 25, who’s coming off a fine season; and innings-eater John Lannan, 27. Closer Drew Storen, 24, and All-Star set-up man Tyler Clippard, 27, head a deep bullpen.

And having Davey Johnson, who replaced Jim Riggleman as manager in late June, in the dugout from the start should be a positive since his teams finished no lower than third place in any of his past seven seasons.

Of course, plenty can go wrong in 2012 as it did for Werth and LaRoche last season and in 2010 when Strasburg blew out his right arm. Maybe Morse was a one-year wonder and the young hitters won’t improve.

But Washington produced 10 more victories from 2009 to 2010 and 11 more from 2010 to 2011. Similar progress in 2012 would mean 91 victories and a likely playoff spot. And all the money saved on Fielder could be spent on new contracts for current Nats and future free agents.

In a month when the Redskins finished in the NFC East basement for a fourth straight season, the Wizards have the NBA’s worst record and just fired their coach, and the Caps are fighting to be in contention after four years of dominance, the Nats, even without the bonus of Fielder’s big bat, are Washington’s only franchise on the rise.


David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March.


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