ORLANDO — The Washington Nationals shaped this winter with a contract hammered out, in part, 22 months ago at a coffee shop in Viera, Fla. It was there that the details began to form and the figures began to add up. A few blocks away, Ryan Zimmerman prepared for the season inside Space Coast Stadium.
Over coffee, two parties — Zimmerman’s agent and General Manager Mike Rizzo — pushed negotiations on a contract extension forward.
The Nationals’ winter could have been defined by trying to keep — or having to replace — a star third baseman who happens to have been the face of their franchise since months after they came into existence.
Instead, Zimmerman’s contract is a problem they do not have to think about, and third base is a hole they do not have to fill.
“It feels good that’s not one of the things we have to worry about or discuss,” Rizzo said.
It also presents, as the winter meetings continue at the Swan and Dolphin resort, a fascinating hypothetical: If Zimmerman had not signed a six-year, $100 million contract extension in February 2012, how much would he be worth right now on the free agent market?
By the consensus of a half dozen executives and agents, the Nationals saved themselves money by locking up Zimmerman two years prior to free agency. Their estimates of the kind of deal he would earn as a free agent ranged from $75 million over five years to $160 million over seven years.
Even after Zimmerman struggled with throwing issues following shoulder surgery and waited until September to hit a power surge, all but one agreed he would have made more money by waiting for free agency.
“It was a weird year for him, but he’s proven he’s a legitimate talent,” said one American League general manager, who predicted Zimmerman could have signed a seven-year, $112 million contract this winter.
“On the free agent market, who knows what his market value would be?” Rizzo said. “Good thing we don’t have to find out. I feel good that he’s with us.”
Zimmerman and his agent at CAA Sports, Brodie Van Wagenen, understood he may have left money on the table when he signed his extension. Zimmerman, though, had priorities beyond maximizing his salary.
He grew up three-and-a-half hours away in Virginia Beach, and his girlfriend had grown up around Washington.
He felt comfortable in Washington, and he wanted to stay at a fair price but not necessarily a maximum. During negotiations he told the Nationals he would not care about being the team’s highest-paid player, a distinction others of franchise-player status may have made a sticking point.
Zimmerman’s girlfriend became his fiancé and is now his wife. In late November, she gave birth to their first child, a daughter named Mackenzie. He put roots down and started a family with the knowledge he would be in one place for the rest of his career.
“Could I maybe have been putting some money off the table that I could have got later? Yeah, of course,” Zimmerman said. “Or I could have got hurt. Things could have gone differently. I could have been in line to not make as much money.
“We did a good job — me and my family, my agent — of weighing all the options back then. When it came down to it, I think being here and being comfortable and just kind of being able to know where I’m going to be for a long time was more important to me than 20 or 30 or 40 million dollars.
“I’m kind of saying that [as if] I got a bad deal, like $100 million is not a lot of money. I think looking back, I definitely have no regrets and I’m really happy with the decisions I made and where I’m at.”
For much of this season, Zimmerman’s play suggested he had signed the deal at the right time. Early in the year, a preponderance of errant throws made him wonder whether he would move to first base.
In mid-August, he was hitting .266 with a .744 OPS.
In the final two months, Zimmerman gained comfort with his throwing motion and strength in his shoulder. With more consistent defense came more confidence at the plate, and he finished with 26 homers and an .809 OPS.
Zimmerman’s free agency “would be fascinating,” said one AL executive, who estimated a five-year, $75 million haul. “He’s either an elite third baseman [defensively] or he’s terrible.”
Every other executive polled would bet on Zimmerman — and most of them would bet big.
The AL GM said Zimmerman’s age would be a major factor in his favor.
At 29, he would be the youngest impact hitter available, the rare free agent entering his prime rather than leaving it. He may not be on the same level as Robinson Cano, but he is two years younger.
Zimmerman’s ability to hit for power also has become a more highly valued commodity. In 2011, the season before he signed his deal, 42 players hit 25 home runs.
In 2013, Zimmerman was one of 30 hitters who belted 25 or more homers.
“A middle-of-the-lineup guy now is 23 [home runs] and 80 [RBI],” said an agent who predicted Zimmerman could have pulled a seven-year deal worth between $22 million and $24 million a year.
“His advantage is that power is at such a premium,” one agent said before Cano signed with the Seattle Mariners. “Twenty-five homers consistently is worth between [$20 million and $25 million] for a premium player. There are no power guys on the market this year. You’re going to tell me Seattle wouldn’t pay $23 million a year for Ryan Zimmerman?”
While the Nationals seemingly made a savvy financial decision with Zimmerman’s contract, the same agent quickly made another point. “He cost himself money,” the agent said. “But it wasn’t a bad deal.”
Zimmerman protected himself against injury. He also guaranteed he would live where he wanted to, in a place that has become home.
When he first met his wife, she assumed every player lives year-round in the city where they play.
“She realized how lucky we are to have the situation that we have,” Zimmerman said. “That was part of me being so willing to sign an extension and making sure I’ll be here for a long time. If it didn’t work out and I had to go somewhere else, I had no doubt we would still make it work then. But the situation I’m in now is pretty much as close to perfect as you can get.”