By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
On the morning of April 6, just hours before the Washington Nationals played their first game of the season, Ryan Zimmerman still had no clue about the contract that would determine his long-term standing with the organization. Since December 2006, Zimmerman's agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, had shared thousands of phone calls and hundreds of contract proposals with the Nationals. And until that point, the two sides had agreed on none of them. If they couldn't agree before the first pitch of Opening Day -- 4:05 p.m. -- they would suspend negotiations for the rest of the regular season.
For at least one reason, neither Van Wagenen nor Washington President Stan Kasten felt reason to panic. Even without a deal, Zimmerman was under Washington's control through 2011. Worst case, the Nationals would pay the central figure of their franchise -- and pay him handsomely -- for the next three seasons.
But Washington also had reason to feel ambivalent about that scenario. Without a long-term deal, Zimmerman would determine his salary year-to-year, relying on an arbitration process that pits player against club. Subjected to such an embroilment, how could Zimmerman symbolize the franchise's stability? The Nationals did not want to test that question.
What happened yesterday demonstrated how one contract extension can foster such goodwill. Because of what happened in the lead-up to the Opening Day deadline, Zimmerman now has a five-year, $45 million contract, the largest guaranteed deal in franchise history. In yesterday's news conference, held at Nationals Park, Zimmerman, 24, sat at a table flanked by Kasten and principal owner Mark Lerner. Each spoke of a hope, of what will happen down the road -- an antidote to the organization's numerous recent missteps.
"This is a culmination of three, four years of conversation," Zimmerman said. "We've come a long ways to make this happen, and there's no place I'd rather be."
All along, Zimmerman requested the Opening Day deadline. He balked at the idea of contract talks interrupting his season. And the organization took the deadline seriously. On Feb. 19, Zimmerman arrived with Van Wagenen in Phoenix for arbitration negotiations; they met a contingent of Nationals representatives that included then-general manager Jim Bowden, then-assistant general manager Mike Rizzo, baseball operations director Brian Parker, and chief legal adviser Damon Jones. The sides had two goals: They wanted to avoid an arbitration hearing for 2009 and they wanted to talk about a multiyear deal.
In Phoenix, Zimmerman signed a one-year, $3.325 million contract -- bypassing the arbitration hearing -- only because he heard assurances that Washington would try to sign him to a longer contract within the next 46 days.
The sides required almost every hour of that window. Already, Zimmerman had made up his mind that he wanted to stay in Washington; the team's offseason signings -- and attempted signings -- erased his skepticism about the team's willingness to spend. Plus, he felt comfortable in the District. He'd gone to school at Virginia. The Nationals had drafted him in 2005, promoting him to the big leagues in 2006. He lived close to his family, including his mother, Cheryl, who has multiple sclerosis.
For years, Van Wagenen had negotiated chiefly with Bowden. Bowden's resignation on March 1 interrupted the dealings, but only briefly. From there, Kasten took over. He had a closer line to ownership than Bowden ever did. Starting in mid-March, Kasten and Van Wagenen spoke every day.
What was discussed? Almost every possible scenario. Four-year deals, six-year deals, 10-year deals. For every contract length, Zimmerman knew a number he wanted: A six-year deal, for instance, would need to be comparable to the six-year, $66 million contract signed earlier this year by Baltimore's Nick Markakis.
But on the morning of Opening Day, the sides were talking about a four-year deal. Washington had an ownership meeting to discuss its desires. When that ended, Kasten called Van Wagenen, this time to talk about a five-year deal.
"The final fifth-year component coming back into play happened forty minutes before first pitch," Van Wagenen said.
Among all the proposals and counter-proposals, this one finally seemed to work. All along, the Nationals had wanted a club option year attached to the contract, giving them the chance to lock in Zimmerman for an additional year, provided he proved his value. Zimmerman and Van Wagenen were always opposed.
"One of the last remaining obstacles was to not have an option year," Van Wagenen said.
This one didn't. Van Wagenen was driving down to Baltimore to attend a game at Camden Yards when he heard from Kasten. The agent immediately called Zimmerman -- no answer. He tried a text message, too. A few minutes later, Zimmerman, in Florida's visiting clubhouse, called back and they discussed the terms. The deal would start with an identical 2009 salary -- $3.325 million, plus $175,000 in plate appearance incentives and a $500,000 signing bonus. For 2010, his salary would escalate to $6.25 million. For 2011, $8.925 million. For 2012, $12 million. For 2013, $14 million. And he'd still be a free agent by age 29.
Twenty minutes before first pitch, Van Wagenen spoke again to Kasten and explained they had a deal. Zimmerman, of course, had to keep silent. He told only his parents, not even his brother. "That was the hardest part," Zimmerman said. During the next two weeks, both sides went over the finer points -- the legal marginalia. Zimmerman underwent a physical. By yesterday afternoon, all involved were ready to toast the agreement and talk about what it meant.
"I will say this about the negotiations," Kasten said. "They didn't end up where they started. There were about 1,000 permutations that crossed the table over the last three years, and this was the final combination that did it. There wasn't any magic done. In fact, the very last permutation happened quite at the end. A day before we finally agreed I couldn't have told you for sure that's what the final result would have been."