By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
VIERA, Fla., Feb. 17 -- Still without a contract for the 2009 season, Ryan Zimmerman decided not to report to camp on Tuesday. The fresh practice uniforms in his locker remained untouched. The mail cluttering the locker's top shelf remained unopened. The looming questions that will shape the next chapter of Zimmerman's tenure with the Washington Nationals remained, for the moment, unresolved.
Zimmerman's absence sets the stage for a crucial week. By Saturday, at the latest, Zimmerman will have a contract. But the two methods capable of delivering such a resolution offer opposite ramifications. A long-term contract agreement strengthens the harmony and goodwill between Zimmerman and the club that drafted him. An arbitration hearing, however, threatens to abrade it.
In recent weeks, Zimmerman's agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, and Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden have discussed a long-term deal, one that would solidify Zimmerman's role as the franchise's building block. If the sides fail to reach an agreement by week's end, however, they collide with an undesirable alternative. On Friday, Zimmerman is scheduled for an arbitration hearing -- an often-contentious process that will force a three-person panel to determine Zimmerman's salary for 2009. (He'll make either $3.9 million, his offer, or $2.75 million, the club's offer.)
For several years, Washington has been going back and forth on various long-term deals with Zimmerman. Throughout that process, both sides have described a strong relationship. In January, Bowden called his relationship with Zimmerman "phenomenal," and added, "I feel optimistic that we will get [a deal] done."
"There are times when we make good progress," he said, "and then there will be a signing or two that sets us all back. But we are making progress."
The Nationals' front office did not perceive Zimmerman's absence on Tuesday to be a holdout, a means to inflate the negotiating urgency. Zimmerman will face no punishment; the collective bargaining agreement does not mandate players to report until Feb. 22 -- and by then, Zimmerman will be here.
"He's got to take care of what he has to do," teammate Nick Johnson said. "By the time he's here, he'll be ready to go."
The question is, under what terms will he report? In recent contract talks, Zimmerman has been compared most closely with Baltimore's 25-year-old outfielder Nick Markakis. The two have remarkably similar numbers. Take their career statistics and average them across a 162-game season, and Markakis gives you 21 home runs, 91 RBI and a .476 slugging percentage. Zimmerman gives you 21 home runs, 94 RBI and a .462 slugging percentage. Zimmerman has a lower batting average (.282 to .299), but he plays a premium fielding position -- and with Gold Glove potential.
The two sides were already using the Zimmerman-Markakis comparison when something complicated matters: Markakis, on Jan. 22, signed a six-year, $66 million contract that will keep him in Baltimore through 2014.
Zimmerman might have a harder time reaching such a figure, though, because a shoulder injury interrupted his 2008 season. The aftermath of his poorest statistical season, as well as the lagging economy, undermines a bit of his negotiating power.
That said, Zimmerman means more to the Nationals than any other player. The team drafted him as a first-round pick in 2005 -- and signed him on the same day. Since then, Washington has marketed Zimmerman as its most public face, which made his absence Tuesday all the more conspicuous.
By mid-morning, most of Zimmerman's clubhouse neighbors had arrived. Adam Dunn, the newly signed No. 4 hitter, unloaded his bags and chatted with Austin Kearns and Nick Johnson. (That group has the best real estate in the clubhouse, a row of stalls closest to the food and the refrigerator.) Washington's other chief offensive players -- Cristian Guzmán, Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge -- all headed to the field for noon practice. It was a reminder of the lineup Washington has built this season to ease the burden on, and aid the progress of, their No. 3 hitter.
"There's got to be a next level for a guy who is only 24 years old," Acta said of Zimmerman. "There is going to be consistency throughout his career. Twenty-five [home runs] or higher every year, and 100 RBI. That's what I can see. And a few Gold Gloves in the future. That's what we see year in and year out."
Last season, Zimmerman earned $465,000, and aside from his draft day signing bonus ($2.975 million), he has never gotten a big-league payday. That will change soon. If nothing else, the arbitration process acts as baseball's reward to players with between three and six years of service time. This is Zimmerman's first year of eligibility. And even without a long-term contract, he is under Washington's control through 2011.
Thursday, Zimmerman will fly to Phoenix, site of his arbitration hearing. That's where all hearings are taking place this year. Bowden will be there, too, because outfielder Josh Willingham is appearing before the panel Wednesday.