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Ryan Zimmerman contract negotiations with Nationals colored by comeback from injury

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CINCINNATI — Ryan Zimmerman arrives every afternoon at the playground he treats as his office between 1 and 1:30 p.m. and begins the refined routine that has helped shape him into one of baseball’s best players. He stretches, receives treatment from a trainer, watches video of the opposing starter, takes batting practice by himself and then with his team, eats, stretches again and plays catch one final time. Only then does he take the position he hopes to hold for the next decade: third baseman for the Washington Nationals.

“I don’t get here because I like to hang out on a couch in the clubhouse,” Zimmerman said. “People think we show up at 5, put our stuff on and play a game. It’s a lot different.”

A torn abdominal muscle forced Zimmerman to the disabled list for two months earlier this season, and the residual effects kept him from his meticulous preparation even after he first returned. But as the scar tissue and soreness faded, Zimmerman returned to form — before and during games. In August, he has batted .333 and slugged.542 with four homers, including a memorable walk-off grand slam.

Zimmerman’s injury and comeback will color perhaps the most important question pertaining to the Nationals’ future: How and when will the team attempt to sign him to his next contract?

Zimmerman will become a free agent after the 2013 season, but baseball’s financial structure and recent trends all but demand the Nationals sign him to a contract extension this offseason. Zimmerman’s representative has remained in constant dialogue with the Nationals for the past year, but because of Zimmerman’s injury, nothing substantive has happened.

The events of this season have not changed Zimmerman’s wishes. He wants to remain with the Nationals for the rest of his career and would like to sign a long-term contract extension — similar to those signed by Troy Tulowitzki with the Colorado Rockies and Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers — rather than test free agency.

“I have faith that we’ll be able to do something here,” Zimmerman said Sunday morning. “I think we’ve had a really good relationship the whole time. I feel like the front-office people enjoy having me here, and I want to be here. I love the fans, I love everyone here. It’s one of those things that I think will work out in the end.”

Timing is everything

Zimmerman signed his current five-year, $45 million contract just before opening day in 2009, putting him on pace to become a free agent at 29. Tulowitzki was in a similar position when he signed a 10-year extension worth $157.75 million that will keep him in Colorado until 2020. Braun, who is represented by CAA Sports, the same agency Zimmerman uses, signed a similar deal this year, one that will pay him $145.5 million for 10 seasons.

Both players added five years to their existing contracts, but they differ with Zimmerman in a crucial way. Tulowitzki was five years from free agency when he signed his deal, and Braun was more than three years away. Zimmerman is just two years away.

“If you’re going to be a free agent at 29, you’ve got players that are getting seven-, eight-, 10-year deals,” Zimmerman said. “You only get one shot to try to get a big deal; if you’re lucky enough to get one shot, that’s the time you have to get it. This one, it’ll have to be longer than the one I signed before. So it’s going to be a huge commitment, obviously, for the team and for me to stay where I want to.”

The Nationals will have to weigh Zimmerman’s durability. He has played in 658 games since 2007, an average of 113 games per year. That does not sound like much, but it is just 17 fewer than Tulowitzki and more than stars such as Kevin Youkilis and Chase Utley. Zimmerman played all 162 games in 2007 and 157 in 2009.

Every long-term contract carries a risk of injury, but there is also the risk the Nationals take in waiting. If the Nationals do not sign Zimmerman before the start of the 2013 season, it would create “a mini-Pujols situation,” one agent said, referring to the stare-down this spring between Albert Pujols and the Cardinals that ended with Pujols likely headed for free agency this winter.

“I’m not saying that if I make it to the last year, there’s a zero percent chance” he would sign an extension, Zimmerman said. “But that’s a part of the business, too. If after your first six years, you’ve produced and worked hard enough to become one of the top players other teams would want to pursue, you want to make them compete against each other. Hopefully, it won’t get to that.”

Face of the franchise

The Nationals would need to give Zimmerman the biggest contract in franchise history to secure him. But by waiting and trying to sign him in free agency, they may be taking more of a financial risk.

“He’s elite and would clean up if he got to free agency,” one major league general manager said. “The market is rewarding players who produce offensively and defensively like he does.”

One National League executive said he would not offer Zimmerman more than $160 million over eight years because of injury concerns.

But another crucial factor is the presence of Jayson Werth’s contract. Werth will make $20 million in 2014 and $21 million per season from 2015 to 2017. To fulfill Zimmerman making $1 million more than Werth each season — which seems the least he could earn, given his “face of the franchise” status — it would require an eight-year, $175 million deal.

Those specifics can wait. For now, Zimmerman is back, playing like himself for the team he wants to stay with.

“My desire is still, I want to be here,” Zimmerman said. “I think I want to stay in one place a long time. . . . For sure, I would be interested. I like it here. Like everyone else says and sees, it’s going in the right direction. Obviously, getting hurt, if it was the last year of my contract, that would hinder it a little bit. But I came back pretty good and I still have two more years. I don’t think that really affects it at all.”

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