Coolness at the Hot Corner

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 1, 2008

Like anyone in baseball with a vested interest in the economic landscape of baseball's marketplace for young talent, Ryan Zimmerman has studied each new contract signed by one of his peers on some other team -- which, these days, seems to occur two or three times a week -- and reflected upon how, if at all, each affects his own situation with the Nationals.

And in that reflection, he no longer sounds like someone so eager to complete a deal.

"The way I look at it is, if you're going to do one of those deals," Zimmerman said, "you either need to do it very early on [in your career], or wait until you're close enough [to salary arbitration], so the leverage starts to swing to your side."

Indeed, with his third full major league season now well underway, Zimmerman is close enough to the promised land of the arbitration system to realize the Nationals are beginning to assume some of the risk -- including the risk of losing the face of the franchise to free agency in 40 months.

While the atmosphere for a Zimmerman signing in Washington never has been better -- with franchise-cornerstone players such as Florida's Hanley Ramírez and Milwaukee's Ryan Braun trading in their long-term earning potential for the security of long-term deals with unprecedented frequency -- the specific circumstances perhaps never have been worse.

In fact, just as Zimmerman sounds as if he is tamping down fans' expectations of getting a deal done soon, Nationals President Stan Kasten acknowledges the dormancy of those contract talks, insisting the team "would love" to get Zimmerman signed but adding the caveat, "when both sides see things the same way."

It not only is Zimmerman's approaching arbitration date that has cooled the momentum, which appeared to be building last year and into the offseason -- it's also his on-field performance. His OPS (on-base plus slugging) has declined in each of his seasons, from .822 in 2006 to .788 last year to .718 so far this year.

While the Zimmerman camp has viewed David Wright's contract with the Mets as its benchmark -- Wright, who shares Zimmerman's position (third base), home base (the Hampton Roads area of Virginia) and division (National League East), signed a six-year, $55 million deal in 2006 -- it is safe to say the Nationals certainly no longer do.

In fact, the Nationals could make a compelling argument that a more appropriate comparison at this point is Ian Kinsler, the second baseman for the Rangers who signed a five-year, $22 million deal in February. Although Kinsler is two years older and Zimmerman has roughly 400 more at-bats, both had the same career batting average (.278) and OPS (.799, .800) entering this weekend.

Zimmerman knows that by waiting, he essentially has gambled on his own performance; in going year-to-year through arbitration, he would be compensated based strictly on his numbers relative to his peers. But ever since Philadelphia's Ryan Howard (who shares agents with Zimmerman) won a salary of $10 million in his first year of arbitration this spring -- part of the impetus behind teams rushing to lock up their young stars -- that path seems quite inviting. A comparable player might be Colorado's Garrett Atkins, who is making $4.3875 million in his first year of arbitration.

It's not too late, of course. Earlier this month, the Marlins gave Ramírez -- who, like Zimmerman, would have been eligible for arbitration after this season -- a six-year, $70 million deal. In 2006, Ramírez and Zimmerman finished 1-2 in NL rookie of the year voting.

For a deal like that to work in Washington, however, Zimmerman probably needs to get very, very hot with his bat, or aim a lot lower in how he views his value.

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