Zimmerman, Nats Appear Close to Deal

By Chico Harlan and Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 18, 2009

Long touted as the principal building block of his franchise, Ryan Zimmerman is expected to soon sign a contract that substantiates that role. The Washington Nationals, making their biggest financial commitment since relocation, are moving toward a five-year, $45 million extension with their third baseman, a source said. Though the deal is not yet finalized, a contract announcement could come within the next few days.

A long-term deal with Zimmerman would culminate some three years of negotiations and satisfy the team's longstanding desire to keep its 2005 first-round pick in Washington.

The deal would begin this year, wiping out the current one-year, $3.325 million contract Zimmerman signed with the Nationals in February. It would continue through 2013. Without a new contract, Zimmerman is eligible for free agency after the 2011 season.

A contract agreement wouldn't just secure Zimmerman's future; it also would offer new evidence of the franchise's willingness to invest serious money in its on-field development. Negotiations with Zimmerman, almost always amicable, have persisted despite several obstacles -- including the recent resignation of general manager Jim Bowden, who had always represented the team when talking to Zimmerman's agent, Brodie Van Wagenen.

During spring training, Zimmerman and the team set an Opening Day deadline for long-term contract talks, with Zimmerman insistent that financial dealings not interfere with the regular season. The fact that talks have gone on quietly despite that public deadline, though, reinforces the team's urgency to strike a deal and Zimmerman's faith in the franchise. An agreement would pay Zimmerman comparably -- at least by one measurement -- to Baltimore's Nick Markakis, who this offseason signed a six-year, $66.1 million deal. Markakis will earn $47 million over the first five years of his deal.

Zimmerman, speaking before last night's game against the Marlins, professed no knowledge of ongoing contract negotiations, saying only: "I haven't heard anything, so unless they're talking or doing something, I don't know. I'm just playing baseball." Acting general manager Mike Rizzo refused comment when asked about Zimmerman negotiations, but called the 24-year-old "a vital part of the franchise, both as the face of the franchise and one of the star players."

Last season, Zimmerman missed all of June and much of July because of a left shoulder injury, resulting in career-low home run and RBI totals. That suggested Zimmerman might be better off delaying a long-term deal, waiting until he has the leverage of a full season with prime stats. Though he is perhaps a future all-star and a future Gold Glove winner, he has neither honor yet on his résumé. Still, Zimmerman this spring expressed a desire to secure his long-term future. And the Nationals, witnessing Zimmerman's strong form at the end of last season and throughout spring training, felt convinced of his ability to become an excellent player, not merely a good one.

Asked earlier this week what Zimmerman means to the franchise, Manager Manny Acta said: "Everything. He means a lot to this franchise. When people have labeled this guy to be the face of the franchise, he is. He's our true leader. He's not vocal but he's a guy, we don't have to talk to him about any team rules or anything like that. It's pretty remarkable that at that age, this guy already has 500 hits. Whether you like it or not, this guy, to me, he is our franchise player."

Zimmerman said of the Nationals: "I love playing in D.C. I love this city. I think this organization is going in the right direction and hopefully we'll do something to where I can be here for a long time. But like I said before, I'm not involved in any of that stuff now, and as far as I'm concerned with it's over with until next offseason."

Entering last night, Zimmerman was hitting .243 with two home runs and eight RBI in 37 at-bats. In his first two seasons, 2006 and 2007, he played at least 157 games and topped 20 home runs both times. He has a lifetime .281 average and a .463 slugging percentage.

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