Ryan Zimmerman and Nationals are down to the wire on contract extension

February 24, 2012

Ryan Zimmerman ambled to his own little corner in the back of the Washington Nationals clubhouse Friday morning, relaxed for a man at the center of a high-stakes, potentially franchise-shaping negotiation. He munched on an egg-white omelet. He chatted briefly with General Manager Mike Rizzo about the Ryan Braun case. “Slept great last night,” Zimmerman said.

About 24 hours before his self-imposed deadline to table negotiations for a contract extension, Zimmerman had not started worrying, and he did not anticipate letting the circumstances affect him. While letting his agent handle any developments, Zimmerman also explained why the most significant hurdle between him and the Nationals — a full no-trade clause — matters so much to him.

“The important part of me signing this deal is to be here, not to sign a deal that’s team-friendly to have it with another team,” Zimmerman said. “That’s the whole point of doing it. . . . I wouldn’t sign a deal like this for the Red Sox or the Yankees or the Dodgers or any other team.”

Zimmerman’s “team-friendly” description is telling. Negotiating after a season in which he missed 60 games, his worst year since 2008, Zimmerman is effectively trading his maximum market value for security. He has no interest in measuring his deal against well-paid teammates.

Zimmerman’s agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, met in person with Rizzo on Thursday, then left Viera later that night without a deal in place. Zimmerman has imposed the deadline for the start of full-squad workouts — players hit the field at 10 a.m. Saturday — in order to prevent his contract situation from becoming a distracting clubhouse topic.

The Nationals and Zimmerman’s camp have been discussing the deal for more than a year, but several obstacles remain. The meeting Thursday did not necessarily move the sides any closer to an agreement — the Nationals have known the cost of signing Zimmerman for weeks.

“There’s still things that need to be worked on on both sides,” Zimmerman said. “We need to do some stuff, they need to do some stuff. We’ll see. I stay out of most of this stuff until it’s the decision time. We’ll see. We’ve come a long way from back where we started. You never know.”

“No one’s giving up on anything,” one Nationals official said. “Everyone understands the importance, and everyone wants the same thing. Is there time before the deadline? I don’t know. But I would be surprised if we missed this opportunity.”

Zimmerman, who received a physical Friday morning along with the rest of the Nationals’ position players, said he had not been preoccupied by the talks. He found comfort in the fact that his contract runs through 2013, even if not reaching a deal by Saturday would make his future in Washington murkier.

“If it happens, I’m thrilled,” Zimmerman said. “If not, I’ve got two years left here still. I’m excited for this year. We’ve got a great team. We’ve got a chance to do something special, something we’ve done with this organization. I think all of us are kind of ready to get to work and get going.

“It’s not like this is the last year. It’s not make-or-break. Getting this done would obviously make them not have to worry about it this year or next year or next offseason. It gives us a core group of guys in place for a long time. They could forget about me and start taking care of the younger guys that are going to need to be taken care of.”

Manager Davey Johnson said a resolution would provide relief for the Nationals, at all levels of the organization.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Johnson said. “I hope they come together and get it done. He’s the franchise player. I think he wants to stay here. I think everybody wants him to stay here. He’s under contract for this year and the next year, but I think everybody from ownership to staff to the players would like to see it completed rather than not completed.”

Zimmerman has been adamant about the Saturday deadline, but he allowed that as long as the principles are in place, the minor details could be worked out later.

“The big things have to be taken care of — the years, the money, that kind of stuff,” Zimmerman said. “There’s obviously little things, the language, that take a little bit longer to get taken care of. If we can get the most-big things done by Saturday, I don’t have to sign the contract by Saturday. We have to have the pressing issues, of which there are a few things, done by Saturday.”

As for Friday, Zimmerman took batting practice and fielded groundballs with the rest of the Nationals, then returned to the clubhouse.

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