Nats Play Pitch, Catch With Zimmerman

The Washington Nationals have their first full-squad workout of the season in Viera, Fla.
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 24, 2008

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 23 -- At some point soon, the Washington Nationals will file the paperwork with Major League Baseball's central office that will lock in Ryan Zimmerman's 2008 salary, most likely in the vicinity of $420,000 -- a tremendous amount of money for a 23-year-old in any other industry. Zimmerman's signature will not be on the document. In baseball, it is called a contract renewal, and Zimmerman, relative to his expected production, will be as big a bargain as exists in the game.

The Nationals, however, had hoped for something more splashy and triumphant: a long-term contract extension that would keep Zimmerman, their talented third baseman, in Washington beyond the four years for which they retain his rights, during which his salary is limited by mechanisms built into baseball's Basic Agreement.

Clearly, such a deal is not going to happen anytime soon. Brodie Van Wagenen, Zimmerman's agent, met with Nationals President Stan Kasten and General Manager Jim Bowden on Thursday at the team's offices at Space Coast Stadium, and both sides -- while quick to point out the positive relationship that exists between them -- now acknowledge the gap between their respective positions is too wide to bridge.

"At this point, we're not close," Bowden said Saturday, in a rare example of a Nationals official discussing contract negotiations. "But there's always going to be time, and the other thing we all know is we have control of the player for four years, no matter what. So we have a four-year security blanket with him."

In a telephone interview Saturday, Van Wagenen said: "At this time, it's not in [Zimmerman's] best interests to consider a contract in the range that they're talking about. I'm not calling either side right or wrong. There are just a different viewpoints."

There may be no more critical issue for the Nationals at this juncture -- three seasons into their stay in Washington, and with a new stadium along the Anacostia River due to open next month -- than Zimmerman's future. He is not only one of the best young players in the game, but also their franchise player, their face. And while it is true the team controls him for the next four years, it is only natural that Nationals fans would want to see him locked up for many years beyond that.

"The good thing is, I'll be here four more years," Zimmerman said Saturday. "Anything else would be a bonus for us and for them."

The forces preventing Zimmerman and the Nationals from reaching an agreement are both simple -- he wants more than the team wants to pay -- and complex. Part of it has to do with the Nationals seeking to contain Zimmerman's future earnings within the framework of the contracts signed by other young stars in recent years, while Zimmerman and his agents have to weigh the security of a long-term contract against what they view as a more lucrative path on a year-to-year basis via the salary arbitration process.

"We've made it clear to [Zimmerman and Van Wagenen] that if Ryan is willing to sign a contract that is similar to what all the other good young players are signing for -- if he's willing to do a market signing -- we are prepared to do that with him," Bowden said. "We're not to going set all new markets with him. We're not going to change the pay scale of Major League Baseball for one player."

For comparable players, Bowden cited Cleveland's Grady Sizemore (who signed a six-year $23.45 million contract in 2006), Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki (six years, $31 million, signed in January), Atlanta's Brian McCann (six years, $26.8 million, signed in 2007) and the New York Yankees' Robinson Cano (four years, $30 million, signed earlier this month).

Bowden said the Nationals' offer is "in the range" of what of those players have signed. "We are prepared to do that like everybody else," he said, "and we have communicated that to Brodie. . . . We have made several offers."

For players of Zimmerman's stature, however, there often is more money to be made via arbitration, the process that governs baseball's salary structure for players with between three and six years of service time. Zimmerman becomes eligible for arbitration for the first time in 2009.

In each of the contracts cited by Bowden, the player's salary in what would have been their first arbitration-eligible season (for example, for Cano that would be 2008) is between $3 million and $3.5 million.

Zimmerman, on the other hand, can point to comparable players who took a year-to-year approach and scored significantly higher salaries in their first arbitration-eligible season. One of those might be Colorado's Garrett Atkins, a third baseman who produced similar numbers (adjusted for stadium effects) to Zimmerman's in his first two seasons, and who recently settled his arbitration case with the Rockies for $4.3875 million.

"We're not looking at other multi-year deals," Van Wagenen said. "What we have to look at is what Ryan would be earning [in a long term deal with the Nationals] versus going through the arbitration process, where there is a very clear landscape, based on previous cases of his peers."

And into the equation, too, goes Ryan Howard's recent record-setting $10 million arbitration victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, which redefined the outer boundaries of what elite players can expect to make via arbitration.

Then, too, every month that goes by takes Zimmerman closer to free agency following the 2011 season, which means his price will only continue to rise -- along with the clamor from Nationals fans who want to see the face of the franchise locked up for a long, long time.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company