Thomas Boswell on Ryan Zimmerman's Contract With the Washington Nationals: Middle Ground Is a Shaky Place for a Struggling Franchise to Land

Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and the Nationals were able to avoid yesterday's arbitration case but unable to agree on a long-term contract.
Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and the Nationals were able to avoid yesterday's arbitration case but unable to agree on a long-term contract. (By Greg Fiume -- Getty Images)
By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, February 21, 2009

There's good news, bad news and medium news. Usually, medium news is also called no news. But in the case of Ryan Zimmerman and his hysterical Washington Nationals franchise, a team that's always either exhilarated or else shopping for sackcloth, middling news is the best we're going to get.

At least now everybody's heartbeat can slow. Mr. Face of the Franchise is signed for one year and the season can begin with a spring training devoid of trauma. Everybody's now signed. The sun is shining.

However, for those with a long-term, not a one-season, time horizon, this feels like a wasted opportunity. Someday, they may say, "We could have locked Zim up for six seasons for sane money and laid the groundwork for a one-town-only career. We didn't. Look what happened."

Late on Thursday night, Zimmerman signed a one-year contract for $3.325 million, splitting the difference precisely between his wishes and the team's previous offer.

Everybody's satisfied because the nightmare of every franchise -- a bitter arbitration hearing, scheduled for yesterday -- was avoided. That's how you end up with a "deface" of the franchise.

But nobody's terribly pleased with the compromise either. It's a make-do, a shrug, a kiss on the cheek, a no-harm, no-foul agreement to start spring training with a pleasant smile, though not an ear-to-ear grin. One final optimistic twist would be for the two sides to continue negotiating and reach a long-term agreement.

If Zimmerman had signed a six-year deal similar to the one the Orioles' Nick Markakis bagged last month, that resolution would have set off cheers of relief. For many weeks, both sides have been trying to get to such a place.

However, ironically, the Markakis deal itself was perhaps the biggest single factor in killing a long Zimmerman pact. In January, before prices for free agents and arbitration-eligible young stars began to plummet, Markakis broke the bank, getting $66 million. Both the Nats and Zimmerman were dumbfounded.

Few pairs of players in baseball are considered more comparable -- practically identical -- than Zim and Nick, who are good friends. What one got paid would certainly be an iota away from what the other got.

Zimmerman had to expect a bigger prize. True, he was coming off the first injury of his career, a bum shoulder that cost him two months in 2008, but he hit .306 after he returned. But in baseball, when the market changes, up or down, you reshuffle the cards.

Such a fresh deal was exactly how the Nats could sign Adam Dunn, the second-best home run hitter of recent years, so cheaply last week. Just months ago Dunn, coming off five straight 40-homer seasons, expected to get $15 million a year for several seasons. Instead, an awful economy and a glut of unsigned players led to shockingly low prices, like Pat Burrell accepting $8 million a year, a 40 percent pay cut, after hitting 33 homers and helping the Phils win a World Series. Gulp.

So, post-Markakis, the Nats and Zimmerman had to go back to the drawing board. They could never come up with a pretty new picture. Zimmerman's side saw young players like Markakis, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis, all on the verge of arbitration eligibility, getting healthy contracts. The Nats saw every other kind of player eating crow. Delusional Manny Ramírez, who still thinks he's 30 and that it's 2002, can barely get his phone calls returned.

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