Zimmerman, Nats Put Off a Deal

Ryan Zimmerman, tagging out the Giants' Rajai Davis in a game last season, had his contract renewed for $465,000, a $65,000 raise.
Ryan Zimmerman, tagging out the Giants' Rajai Davis in a game last season, had his contract renewed for $465,000, a $65,000 raise. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)   |   Buy Photo
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 9, 2008

KISSIMMEE, Fla., March 8 -- The lineup posted on the wall of the visitors' clubhouse Saturday at Osceola County Stadium had the name "Zimmerman" written in black marker, squarely in the third spot. For each of the Washington Nationals' 162 games last season, that is precisely where Ryan Zimmerman's name fit. If all goes well, the same will be the case in 2008 and well into the future.

But the technicalities of baseball's salary system mean that, for now, Zimmerman must take the pay the team assigns him, regardless of his prominence in the lineup or the public eye. Thus, the Nationals took the expected step Saturday of "renewing" Zimmerman's contract for $465,000 -- a $65,000 raise over 2007 -- after modest negotiations between the two sides failed to yield a multiyear deal.

Such renewals are common for players with less than three years' service time in the majors. But given a spring in which some prominent players have complained publicly about contract renewals -- namely Milwaukee's Prince Fielder and Baltimore's Nick Markakis -- both sides took care Saturday to say they understand the other's point of view, even as they disagree on Zimmerman's current value.

"Both sides clearly understand intellectually why we are where we are," Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden said. "The process is working well. Most negotiations don't go as well as this, where you clearly understand where the other party's coming from. We just haven't been able, at this point, to find the bridge to get it done."

Zimmerman, who is entering his third season as the Nationals' third baseman, is a .282 career hitter who averaged 22 homers and 100 RBI in his first two full seasons while playing at spacious RFK Stadium. The Nationals have also positioned him as the face of their developing franchise -- using him prominently in ads and in the community -- as they prepare to open brand-new Nationals Park at the end of the month.

Zimmerman, 23, is well aware of all that. But he also is confident enough -- both in his ability and in the arbitration system that helps determine salaries for players with between three and six years of service time -- that he will be paid handsomely next offseason. That will be true, he believes, whether or not he agrees to a long-term deal and whether or not he is decidedly more productive.

"I know what's going on," Zimmerman said. "I've started to learn the system."

Colorado's Garrett Atkins, for instance, is a third baseman who was eligible for arbitration for the first time this offseason. Atkins is a .302 career hitter who averaged 22 homers and 107 RBI in his first three full seasons -- numbers that, given the disparity between RFK and Coors Field, a hitter's paradise, are fairly comparable to Zimmerman's. Atkins signed a one-year contract with the Rockies that guarantees him $4.3875 million for 2008 and could be worth as much as $4.48 million should he reach a series of incentives based on plate appearances.

"People are getting a lot of money through arbitration," Zimmerman said. "There's no pressure to go out and hit 40 [home runs] and drive in 150. Go out and have another solid year, and have three years of averaging 20-something [homers] and 100-something [RBI] would go over pretty well."

Several young players have signed multiyear deals in recent years, thus allowing the teams to "buy out" the seasons in which they would have been eligible for arbitration and, in some cases, for free agency -- which comes after six full years in the majors.

Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki signed a six-year, $31 million deal after his first full big league season. Cleveland outfielder Grady Sizemore (six years, $23.45 million signed prior to 2006) and Atlanta catcher Brian McCann (six years, $26.8 million signed prior to 2007) are other examples of players who agreed to long-term deals before their second full year in the majors. Bowden said the club has used those types of deals as parameters in negotiations.

Zimmerman, though, is a year further along in his career than those players. He and the Nationals began discussing a potential long-term deal last offseason. But given what Zimmerman believes he can do this year in a more hitter-friendly home park, he is willing to be patient.

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