Isn’t re-signing Ryan Zimmerman to a long-term, bank-busting, career-long contract a no-brainer for the Washington Nationals? While implementing The Plan, the Nats have been . . . let’s call it fiscally conservative. Recently, they’ve opened their wallets — no truth to the rumor that moths flew out — to pay large sums to a lot of youngsters, and Jayson Werth.
The jury is still out on those moves, but there’s no question paying Zimmerman will pay dividends. Right now, he is the Nats’ marquee player, without question. Stephen Strasburg could become that guy — but even in a perfect world, Strasburg will only pitch every five days. Bryce Harper could become that guy — but he’s still a work in progress and his day of contract reckoning is well down the road.
Zimmerman’s isn’t. He is eligible for free agency after the 2013 season. We’ve seen what happens when teams don’t lock up their Zimmermans early. The Nats want to avoid an Albert Pujols-type situation because if Zimmerman hits the market, all bets are off.
Zimmerman told Adam Kilgore that if he made it to that final season without an extension, there wouldn’t be a zero-percent chance of re-signing, but “If after your first six years, you’ve produced and worked hard enough to become one of the top players other teams would want to pursue, you want to make them compete against each other. Hopefully, it won’t get to that.”
The Nats should make sure it doesn’t. “Face of the franchise” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot, but keeping a superstar player on your roster for his entire career is good business. George Brett spent 21 years with the Royals and was the foundation upon which they built a great team that advanced to the postseason nine times, including two World Series and one world championship. He also remained in Kansas City and is involved in the club and the community (although the current state of the Royals probably makes him weep occasionally).
Zimmerman could be a Brett-like figure for the Nats, although it’s doubtful he’ll ever flirt with .400. Brett came up with the Royals in 1973, their first season in Kaufmann Stadium. Zimmerman came up in 2005, the Nats’ first year in Washington. In Brett’s first six full seasons with the Royals, he averaged 145 games. Zimmerman, in his first six full seasons with the Nats, is averaging 133, although the data is incomplete as the 2011 season continues.
Through Monday, Zimmerman is hitting .289 with a .482 slugging percentage. He averages 25 homers and 96 RBI a season. Brett’s career average of .305 is obviously superior, but his slugging percentage is very comparable (.487), his home runs are lower (19) and his 96 RBI average matches Zimmerman’s.
But forget the numbers for a minute. Think of every memorable Nats moment since 2005. How many of them didn’t involve Zimmerman? Let’s see, there was Strasburg’s first start . . . and I’m out. Zimmerman has had more walk-off homers than Werth has had homers this season — okay, not really, but doesn’t it seem that way? The one that christened Nationals Park is his most famous, of course, but there have been a lot of such moments.
For a franchise trying to establish an identity, it’s important to be able to bring back a guy in 20 years who was here almost from the very beginning and spent his entire career in Washington. One reason Jim Thome’s 600th home run was underplayed in the eyes of many is that he spent his 21-year career with five teams. He’s still a first-ballot Hall of Famer, of course, but he’ll have to make a decision about the cap to wear on his bust.
Brett had no such decision to make. He was the first to go into the Hall of Fame in a Royals cap. Zimmerman, too, looks like a sure-fire Hall of Famer. What a tremendous loss it would be for the club if he went in wearing anything but the Curly W.