The minute Jordan Zimmermann signed his two-year, $24 million contract extension, it became more likely the Nationals would either lose him in free agency or trade him before he got there. After the Reds signed right-hander Homer Bailey to a rich contract extension Wednesday, the Nationals’ chances to keep Zimmermann beyond the 2015 only grew bleaker.
Bailey’s six-year, $105 million deal set a new benchmark and provided the best barometer yet for Zimmermann’s market. Teams and agents use new contracts as guides for negotiations, and Bailey is close to an ideal test case for Zimmermann. They are both 27-year-old right-handers who have established themselves as star-caliber pitchers. There are two significant differences. One, Bailey was only year away from free agency, while Zimmermann still has two years to go. Two, Zimmermann is better.
Here’s how Zimmermann and Bailey compare over the past two seasons combined. We used the past two seasons out of recency bias, and because that’s when Bailey got good and Zimmermann shed any team-imposed innings restrictions following Tommy John surgery.
If Bailey got $105 million over six years, how much could Zimmermann command? It’s not as simple as comparing years and dollars. The Reds had to pay for five free agent years when they signed Bailey. If the Nationals extended Zimmermann over the same length of time, they would need to add four free agent years to Zimmermann’s current deal. Really, we’d be talking about the 2017-20 seasons.
An unaffiliated agent suggested Zimmermann could ask for four years at $20 million per season for that time frame. That would make Zimmermann’s total financial package starting this year a six-year, $104 million deal. It would look like the better pitcher would be making $1 million less. Really, the extra year of free agency would make it equitable.
Hypotheticals aside, the signs point to Zimmermann eventually landing elsewhere. That could be an incorrect reading; maybe Bailey’s deal will define negotiations to the point it stokes a deal. But from here, that seems unlikely.
Zimmermann has said more than once he will not be greedy, but he will also not take a discount to stay with the Nationals. The Nationals and Zimmermann discussed a long-term deal before they reached the two-year pact. When he signed his two-year deal, it signaled his desire to get to free agency with a little extra security.
The Nationals have never made the kind of financial commitment to a pitcher that would be necessary to keep Zimmermann beyond 2015. Their largest expenditure for a pitcher was the five-year, $42 million extension Gio Gonzalez signed before the 2012 season, a deal that now looks quite favorable for the Nationals.
Bailey’s deal may also price the Nationals out of Zimmermann because of the context. They also have Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos and Ian Desmond to think about when it comes to possible contract extensions. The Lerners are going to have to make tough decisions. The first is, how deeply do they want to dig into their vast wealth? They have no excuse not to spend, not even MLB dragging its feet over the MASN fiasco. But in their stewardship they have run their baseball team for profit. That’s the biggest question the Nationals have to answer, and with their glut of young talent getting older and more expensive, they will have to answer it soon.
The first casualty may be Zimmermann. Bailey’s contract defined what Zimmermann’s big extension would look like. And unless something changes, the available signs suggest the Nationals would not offer it to him. It is spring, and so Zimmermann is focused only on his pitching and building off his all-star 2013 season. Beyond that, there is uncertainty.
FROM THE POST
The Nationals held their first workout, a speck between last year and a fresh start.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
MATT WILLIAMS’S WORKOUT QUOTE OF THE DAY
“It takes stamina to pursue success.”
DAYS UNTIL OPENING DAY