By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 7, 2010; 11:16 PM
LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLA. - Baseball's offseason has become very much about the Washington Nationals, about their mega-deal with Jayson Werth, their pursuit of Cliff Lee, their inquiring on most every significant free agent available, their desire to turn their franchise from a punch line into something that must be reckoned with.
At the moment, it is not about Ryan Zimmerman. As Stephen Strasburg overshadowed him in the summer, Werth has overshadowed him in the winter. In the near future, though, the ramifications of this offseason could resonate as much for Zimmerman as any other player.
Zimmerman again reiterated his desire to finish his career in Washington last weekend, and the Nationals are effectively forced to fulfill it. "That's a guy they have to sign," one baseball source said. "That's the franchise." Zimmerman is currently signed through the 2013 season, when he turns 29, and two new contracts in the past week have directly influenced Zimmerman's next round of negotiations with the Nationals.
First, the Colorado Rockies gave a massive contract extension worth a total of $157 million over 10 years to homegrown shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, perhaps the closest comparison to Zimmerman in the major leagues. And on Sunday, of course, the Nationals added Werth for seven years and $126 million. The league set a rough market value for Zimmerman, and then the Nationals, if anything, raised it.
If Werth signed for $126 million, just imagine what Zimmerman could command. Zimmerman has proven to be even more valuable than Werth the past couple years, he is younger, and he is a homegrown fan favorite who tends to always do the right thing. One industry source speculated Zimmerman, if he signs an extension similar to Tulowitzki's, could command nearly $200 million.
Zimmerman called Tulowitzki's contract "a great deal for the Rockies and a great deal for Troy."
An extension like Tulowitzki's "absolutely appeals to me," Zimmerman said last Friday in a phone conversation. "I think what you're seeing now is, what these mid-market teams start to do is lock up their young talent. Once they're a year away from free agency, then you're going to have to compete with every team. You throw a deal like that at someone, it's going to be hard to turn down."
In April 2009, Zimmerman signed his current contract, an extension that locks him up for three more seasons. For now, neither side feels compelled to start negotiations with any immediacy. "We just signed Ryan to a contract," General Manager Mike Rizzo said. "We just finished negotiating and signing him to a contract."
But the time for him to sign his next may be coming. Tulowitzki had signed a previous extension in 2008 that took him through the end of the 2013 season, with an option for 2014. The Rockies were motivated partly by weariness of big-market teams, and the Nationals may have reason for similar concerns.
By 2013, the year Derek Jeter's contract expires, the Rockies knew the New York Yankees would likely be in the market for a shortstop.
Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez's contract runs until 2017, but he may be forced to move to designated hitter by the time Zimmerman could become a free agent.
And the Boston Red Sox have their third baseman, Kevin Youkilis, under contract until 2012 with a team option for 2013.
The Tulowitzki contract serves as an ideal starting point because of how intertwined their careers have been. Zimmerman was drafted fourth overall out of Virginia in 2005; Tulowitzki went seventh out of Long Beach State. They appeared together on the cover of Sports Illustrated prior to the 2008 season. Both play exquisite defense, and their OPSes (.839 for Zimmerman, .857 for Tulowitzki) are nearly identical.
An American League executive called described choosing between Tulowitzki and Zimmerman "a coin flip."
The Nationals are too busy on more immediate matters at the moment to worry about Zimmerman's next contract, and there is no reason to think the next round of negotiations, whenever they begin, will be anything but harmonious.
When they do start, it will be this offseason, the one all about the Nationals, that will sets the terms. The Nationals handed Werth the biggest contract in their history, but it will not hold that title for long.