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Posted at 07:07 AM ET, 03/28/2011

The risk of waiting on Ryan Zimmerman’s next deal

The longer the Nationals wait to address Ryan Zimmerman’s contract, the larger risk they take. That’s one of the points that was hinted at in Sunday’s birdcage-liner story, but largely got left on the cutting-room floor. Why a risk? Several reasons.

Zimmerman wants to play for a winner, and believes the Nationals will be one soon. But if the Nationals’ turnaround does not occur on the schedule the front office and Zimmerman believe it will, another losing season or two could make Zimmerman wonder what it would be like to play for a perennial power.

That opportunity would surely be there. If Zimmerman continues his current progression without an extension, he would become a free agent at age 29, the heart of his prime. Kevin Youkilis’s current contract will have just expired, and Alex Rodriguez will be 38, probably ready for a move to designated hitter. So both the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, baseball’s two richest teams, may need a third basemen.

There is also financial risk – by negotiating Zimmerman’s next contract sooner rather than later, the Nationals would actually save money. Based on other contracts signed recently and constantly rising tide of player salaries, Zimmerman could command a contract worth roughly $200 million, according to estimates by several baseball sources.

As a free agent, though, assuming he remains healthy and on his current progression, Zimmerman could command a contract closer to $300 million in free agency than $200 million. The Nationals could give a staggering sum of money to Zimmerman sometime next winter, and chances are it would save them in the long run. That’s baseball’s financial structure, and Zimmerman has a keen understanding of it.

“If you get to two years left [before] free agency, you can talk,” Zimmerman said. “But if nothing works out, if you have one year before free agency, you might as well play your year out and see what happens. Obviously, it’s a business, too. The logical business decision is to make people compete. It’s pretty simple economics. That’s why you’re seeing a lot of these teams try to lock up their young guys so they don’t get to the point where they have to compete with the Yankees or the Red Sox, the Dodgers, the Cubs.”

The winter, the Colorado Rockies provided a template for a potential Zimmerman contract when they signed shortstop Troy Tulowitzki to a contract extension. Tulowitzki, 26, was taken three picks after Zimmerman in the 2005 draft. He made his debut one year after Zimmerman, but he signed his first contract extension in prior to 2008, one year earlier than Zimmerman. Both play Gold Glove-caliber defense, and their career OPSes (.839 for Zimmerman, .857 for Tulowitzki) are close. Zimmerman has accounted for more Wins Above Replacement than Tulowitzki in each of the past three seasons.

The contract Tulowitzki signed will pay him $157.75 million over 10 seasons, roughly $15.8 per season. That set a starting point for any negotiations with Zimmerman. And then the Nationals raised it when they signed Werth. The annual average value of Werth’s deal, the primary way agents, players and executives measure and compare contract, is $18 million. Zimmerman is younger, has a stronger attachment with the franchise and, by most any measure, is simply better than Werth.

Zimmerman is not the kind of player who will make a public show of his next round of contract of negotiations. Even if the issue is mostly flying under the radar, below Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth and whatever boat-rocking acquisition comes next, Zimmerman’s next contract is the most important issue facing the Nationals.


The Nationals ended their union with Nyjer Morgan by trading him to the Brewers for Lenny Dykstra’s son, Cutter.

By  |  07:07 AM ET, 03/28/2011

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