As the Washington Nationals have grown from a wayward franchise into a respected National League force, few players have meant more to them than Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond. Both debuted in 2009, perhaps the Nationals’ darkest season, and their rise coincided with the team’s. Over the past three seasons, according to the catch-all metric Wins Above Replacement, they have been the Nationals’ most valuable hitter and pitcher. They are the most prized of baseball commodities: bona fide homegrown stars, the kind of players teams devote millions to find, develop and, finally, keep.
For the Nationals to retain Desmond and Zimmermann, this winter may prove crucial. Both players are eligible for salary arbitration and are scheduled to hit free agency in two years. The Nationals hope to sign each to a contract extension similar to the one Ryan Zimmerman received in February 2012, two years before his scheduled free agency. Both are willing to listen.
“Those long-term contracts, you really have to know that personality and the track record and the history,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said last week at the winter meetings. “I think that makes it easier to give guys longer-term contracts that you know than guys you’re going out in the free agent market and that you don’t know as well.”
Though Desmond and Zimmermann will remain under the Nationals’ contractual control through the 2015 season, baseball’s financial structure and recent trends will add urgency to negotiations. If the Nationals do not reach agreements on extensions with Desmond and Zimmermann before their season opener March 31, the chances of one or both eventually leaving in free agency — or being traded before they have the chance — would greatly increase. Both are eligible for arbitration, with Zimmermann projected to make $10.5 million next season and Desmond to earn $6.9 million.
The Nationals engaged Zimmermann and Desmond in contract talks last offseason. So far, Zimmermann said, the Nationals have yet to restart those discussions. But he wants them to heat up shortly.
“It’s been the desire the whole time,” Zimmermann said this week in a phone conversation. “I’m willing to listen. If they’re going to come talk to us with only a couple weeks left of spring training, it’s not going to get done. If we’re going to do something, we’re going to have to start talking a lot earlier than we did last winter.”
Last year, the Nationals presented Zimmermann, who is represented by SFX, with at least one offer during spring training. Desmond, who has shied away from talking about contracts, said during the spring that the Nationals approached his agent, Sports One Athlete Management, in 2012 about the possibility of an extension but no dollars or terms were discussed.
“I got offered a couple contract extensions, but they weren’t the best deal we were looking for,” Zimmermann said. “That’s the way it kind of played out so far. A lot of people get the impression I’m trying to break the bank and get a boatload of money. I want a fair deal. I don’t want something team-friendly. I want to get paid my value.”
What should Zimmermann expect? At 27, he is coming off his first all-star selection. Over the past three seasons combined, just 10 starters have an ERA better than his 3.12. Since Zimmermann recovered from his 2009 Tommy John surgery, he has not returned to the disabled list. Over the past two years, he has pitched 409 innings.
“I think Zimmermann’s contract is going to be pretty unbelievable,” one unaffiliated agent said.
This past spring, Justin Verlander set a new standard with a seven-year, $180 million contract extension. A closer comparison to Zimmermann may be Giants right-hander Matt Cain. In April 2012, the Giants signed Cain to a five-year, $112.5 million extension as he sat one year away from free agency.
Zimmermann has a figure in mind, but for negotiating purposes he did not want to reveal it. “I don’t think there’s a way to explain it without spilling the beans,” he said. “We kind of have a number we want and we want to get to.”
And what about Desmond? He doesn’t turn 29 until September and is coming off the best two seasons of his career, including his first all-star selection in 2012. At a premium position in those two years, he has played 288 games, hit .286 with an .812 on-base plus slugging percentage — the highest of any shortstop in that span — and won two Silver Slugger awards. He was a Gold Glove award finalist each of the past two seasons and is a solid base runner and clubhouse leader.
Although the comparisons aren’t perfect, the deals given to Elvis Andrus and Troy Tulowitzki could serve as frameworks for a potential Desmond deal. With two years before Andrus could test free agency, his agent, Scott Boras, and the Texas Rangers agreed in April to an eight-year extension worth $120 million beginning in 2015 that includes two player opt-outs after the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
Andrus is three years younger than Desmond, has a higher on-base percentage and rates higher defensively and as a base runner by some metrics. Desmond, however, provides more power — and power pays. He has a career .432 slugging percentage and 67 home runs compared with Andrus’s career .348 slugging percentage and 18 career home runs.
Tulowitzki, a three-time all-star, signed a six-year, $119 million extension with the Colorado Rockies in 2010 with three years left on his contract. Despite recent injuries, Tulowitzki is seen as the best power hitter and perhaps fielder of the bunch.
But the dearth of top shortstops in the 2015 class may aid Desmond’s case. J.J. Hardy, Hanley Ramirez and Asdrubal Cabrera could headline a class of shortstop free agents that includes Jed Lowrie and Jimmy Rollins, but Ramirez is an extension candidate with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Few top shortstops hit free agency; the last one, Jose Reyes, signed a six-year, $106 million deal with the Miami Marlins in December 2011.
“There’s not that many elite shortstops out there,” said an AL scout who watched the Nationals extensively last season. “And because of that, [Desmond’s] value may be higher than what the Nationals or I actually think.”
The stakes will be high. Once players reach the season before free agency without a contract, the temptation to test the market typically wins out.
“I guess I haven’t looked that far ahead,” Zimmermann said. “If nothing comes about, I’ll talk to my agent and see where we want to go next offseason. It’s one offseason at a time.”