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Dodgers’ deal with Matt Kemp is latest reminder that Nationals have yet to extend Ryan Zimmerman’s contract

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MILWAUKEE — The Washington Nationals and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman share the mutual desire to spend the next decade or so together, and Monday afternoon brought the latest reminder of what it will take to ensure that happens. When the Los Angeles Dodgers and star center fielder Matt Kemp agreed on an eight-year, $160 million contract extension, one more franchise ensured its face — its brightest, best young player — would stay in the same uniform for years to come.

Kemp’s deal continued a trend Zimmerman would like to be part of, even as nothing about his next contract is close to resolved. Zimmerman has been open about his wish to sign a contract that would keep him in Washington, the only place the first draft pick in Nationals history has played. General Manager Mike Rizzo, while declining to talk specifics, said at the general manager meetings he’d like to make Zimmerman’s wish a reality.

“We’re not going to talk about Ryan’s extension,” Rizzo said. “He’s a crucial factor and performer for us. Suffice it to say that we’d like for him to be here for a long time.”

At this point, though, little progress has been made. Rizzo and Zimmerman’s camp share a strong relationship, and the sides have had informal dialogue about Zimmerman’s next deal. But as of now, no specifics have been exchanged and no proposals are on the table.

“There currently are no active discussions regarding a contract extension for Ryan,” said Brodie Van Wagenen of CAA Sports, Zimmerman’s agent.

The window for those discussions to take place could be closing faster than it seems. Zimmerman’s current contract extension, signed before the 2008 season, runs through 2013. But the Nationals’ time frame to lock up Zimmerman for the long term is more urgent than that. If Zimmerman reaches spring training in 2013 without an extension, he will opt for free agency. He would also prefer not to negotiate during the season, making this winter one of the last significant time frames to work out a deal.

That sentiment is common among players — once a player eligible for free agency nears the end of his deal, “they almost become free agents,” Milwaukee Brewers General Manager Doug Melvin said. “You’d either get them signed prior to that, or there’s a good chance you’re not going to get them signed. We felt with [Braun], we tried to sign him beforehand. We needed that kind of star talent and he was willing to stay. If you’re going to get involved signing a five-plus [year] player, you’re going to buy a lot of free agent years. You’d like to sign them sooner if you can.”

With Kemp’s deal, the sample size of franchise players who signed long-term extensions with the team that developed them grew. The group includes Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer and Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard. Last winter, Troy Tulowitzki signed a contract extension with the Colorado Rockies that guaranteed him $157.75 million between 2011 and 2020. This spring, Ryan Braun signed an extension that added five years and $105 million to his existing deal in Milwaukee, which gave him a pact that also lasts through the 2020 season.

“They’re core players, and they’re good performers,” Rizzo said. “I see a direct correlation with Zim. He’s a core player. He’s a great performer for us, and a guy that we feel is a long-term piece of our ball club.”

Tulowitzki had three years remaining on his contract and Braun had five years remaining on his. Kemp signed his extension under different circumstances — he had yet to reach free agency and would have been eligible for arbitration this year for the final before reaching free agency this season.

Tulowitzki and Braun are the most similar cases, since they, like Zimmerman, signed a significant extension while eligible for arbitration and then signed a second, monster contract with years remaining on their first deal. Zimmerman has two years left on his current contract, already less time than Tulowitzki and Braun.

While the cases vary, they share the same overarching framework. Teams signed their best player and franchise face to huge deals before the temptation of testing free agency neared, eliminating the risk of watching them pull on a different uniform.

“There’s teams that would like to have a star talent,” said Melvin, who signed Braun to his deal. “When you have one, you hate to lose them for a draft pick or next to nothing. You’re going to have to replace them anyway. You know your own players better than some of the players out there.”

Nationals notes: While at the general manager meetings, Rizzo plans to have a preliminary visit with Jeff Berry, the agent for left-handed free agent pitcher Mark Buerhle. Rizzo also said the Nationals have “extensively scouted” and “have interest in” Tsuyoshi Wada, a Japanese soft-tossing left-handed starting pitcher expected to become available via the posting system. . . . Rizzo said he expects to not pursue any high-priced closers, expressing confidence in Drew Storen and satisfaction with a stable of young, cheap relievers that includes Tyler Clippard and Henry Rodriguez.

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