Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals Settle on One-Year Contract -- for Now

Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman hit 14 home runs last season, including a walk-off shot in the Nationals Park opener.
Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman hit 14 home runs last season, including a walk-off shot in the Nationals Park opener. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 21, 2009

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 20 -- Confronted with a deadline to determine Ryan Zimmerman's 2009 salary, the Washington Nationals faced both a fear and a goal. They feared an arbitration case. They wanted a long-term deal. So in the end, when both parties emerged after hours of face-to-face meetings in Phoenix, Zimmerman had a one-year, $3.325 million contract, and Washington took comfort knowing this much: The immediate fear won't be realized. The ultimate goal still might be.

Zimmerman's contract for 2009, which includes up to $175,000 in incentives, negated the need for an arbitration hearing and thwarted the possibility of any acrimony between the Nationals and their franchise player.

Rather, the negotiations that settled Zimmerman's short-term future fortified a sense from both sides that a multiyear contract can be reached within the next few weeks. The Nationals, in a meeting with Zimmerman on Thursday, told their 24-year-old third baseman that they hope to sign him to a long-term deal by Opening Day.

"Ryan made it very clear to the Nationals that he is willing to sign a long-term deal," said Zimmerman's agent, Brodie Van Wagenen. "And the Nationals in turn made it very clear to Ryan that they want to sign him to a long-term deal as well, with the goal being to have something done by Opening Day."

When Zimmerman landed in Phoenix at 10 a.m. Thursday, he still did not have a contract. His hearing was scheduled for the following day. That afternoon, Zimmerman, Van Wagenen and another Creative Artists Agency partner, Casey Close, met with members of Washington's front office for more than an hour at a hotel. Though both sides expressed desire for a long-term deal, they realized that the approaching hearing required discussion of something quick and short -term.

When Washington General Manager Jim Bowden and Van Wagenen talked late Thursday night, the agreement was set. Zimmerman's deal represented a perfect split between the numbers offered for a potential arbitration case: $3.9 million from Zimmerman, $2.75 million from the Nationals. The incentives were tied purely to plate appearances -- i.e., health. If Zimmerman reaches 500 at-bats in 2009, he'll earn $75,000. If he reaches 550 at-bats, he'll earn another $50,000. If he reaches 600 at-bats, he'll earn a final $50,000.

In other words, a healthy Zimmerman earns $3.5 million.

All along, Bowden spoke about the importance of avoiding the hearing with a franchise player. During such hearings, the team builds its case for a reduced salary by harping on a player's shortcomings -- and in some cases, tensions linger.

If anything, the discussions in Phoenix tightened the business relationship between Zimmerman and his team. Bowden said on Friday by e-mail that "we continue to work on a multiyear contract while continuing an excellent relationship." Van Wagenen said that "Jim was phenomenal in the last 48 hours in helping us reach a fair deal."

Speaking about the possibility of a long-term contract, Nationals President Stan Kasten said: "We talked about it yesterday. We're going to talk about it tomorrow. That would be an end result both sides would like to see."

Zimmerman is coming off the most difficult-to-appraise season of his career, the result of a shoulder injury that cost him all of June and much of July. But the missed time -- and the diminished statistics that resulted -- have not made Zimmerman hesitate to sign a long-term deal this offseason. And he expressed as much to Bowden.

Even without such security in place, Zimmerman remains under Washington's control through 2011. But recently, several players comparable to Zimmerman -- including Baltimore's Nick Markakis -- have signed deals just as they become arbitration-eligible. Markakis, now entering his fourth season with the Orioles, signed a six-year, $66 million deal last month. Zimmerman might command slightly less -- in 2008, in 428 at-bats, he hit .283 with 14 home runs and 51 RBI -- but he has become the central figure in Washington's build-from-within strategy. Washington drafted Zimmerman in the first round in 2005. He debuted in the big leagues later that year.

Zimmerman earned $465,000 last season.

All 69 Washington players invited to spring training now have contracts for 2009.

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