The Washington Nationals’ brief history includes almost no chapters without Ryan Zimmerman. Less than six months before they used their first ever draft pick on Zimmerman — then a 20-year-old third baseman from the University of Virginia — Nationals executives ran the franchise out of trailers parked in the RFK Stadium lot. They played 134 games before Zimmerman appeared in his first, and they have not played one without him on the roster since.
Zimmerman knows nothing of major league baseball outside Washington. He lives in a Clarendon townhouse, eats dinner at Liberty Tavern and last season at Nationals Park walked to bat while Wale’s “D.C. Chillin’” blared at his request. Nowhere else in baseball are a place, a franchise and a player so closely intertwined.
In Washington, the Nationals and Zimmerman have grown up together.
“I’m only 26, but I feel people think that I’m 30-something,” Zimmerman said. “They forget that I was up when I was 20 years old. Basically, when I first got called up, I was a baby. I wasn’t a grown-up yet. A lot of how I’ve grown up has been influenced by D.C. culture. It’s a special place to me.”
Zimmerman also wants to grow old in Washington, a desire tied to his faith the Nationals will finally start winning and to the connection he has formed with a city a three-hour drive from Virginia Beach, the place he grew up. He would like to play his entire career with the team that drafted him, to fulfill his potential along the Anacostia, to lift the franchise he has long been the face of out of its last-place abyss.
Zimmerman does not want to be the star player who loses and loses and then jumps via free agency to quench his competitive aspirations elsewhere.
“I mean, no, I don’t want to be,” Zimmerman said. “Would I?”
He let that question hang for a just a moment, sitting on an aluminum bench in the first base dugout at Space Coast Stadium one morning earlier this month, twirling a bat with hands. Zimmerman is one of the best players in baseball and, as a hard-working, clear-eyed 26-year-old, promises to become even better. Last season, the leading analytical Web site FanGraphs.com imagined a scenario in which any baseball player could be chosen to start a franchise. It determined the best choice would be Zimmerman.
Zimmerman has a keen understanding of baseball’s financial structure — and his potential place in it. His contract extension, signed just before the 2009 season, runs through 2013. But baseball’s economic system places more urgency on the Nationals than those dates suggest.
Zimmerman indicated he will test free agency if he does not reach a contract extension sometime before the 2012 season ends. If they cannot reach a deal in the next two years, then, the Nationals would either risk bidding on him in free agency or, unthinkably, be forced to trade Zimmerman.
Zimmerman as a free agent would potentially create grave economic, competitive and public-relations consequences for the Nationals. Which is why, according to one individual familiar with the situation, the Nationals and Zimmerman’s representatives will likely initiate discussions regarding his next contract this season.
Around Zimmerman, the Nationals have built a team on the cusp of competitiveness. Two consecutive seasons filled with futility landed them Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. They acquired the best power-hitting outfielder available last winter by handing Jayson Werth $126 million, more money, by far, than any other team believed sensible. They tried to offer one pitcher, Zack Greinke, a $100 million contract and will probably try again with another ace next winter.
The only way those maneuvers make sense is if the Nationals also ensure Zimmerman remains the centerpiece of the lineup. To be sure, he does not want to leave.
“That’s the dire, last-minute decision if I didn’t think we were going to win,” Zimmerman said. “That goes back to, I have a lot of confidence that we’re really close to becoming good. Not just for a couple years, but because they’ve built from the ground up; they’re doing it the right way.
“I don’t think we’re as far away as everyone thinks. . . . That’s kind of another one of the reasons I want to be here for so long.”
There is no urgency yet, on either for side, to finalize Zimmerman’s next contract. (General Manager Mike Rizzo, through a team spokesman, declined to comment for this article. Zimmerman’s agent, Brodie Van Wagenen of CAA, also declined to comment.) But it may well be the most important issue facing the Nationals.
Zimmerman said he prefers not to negotiate during the regular season — “I think that’s kind of selfish,” he said — but would listen if the Nationals approach him.
“I would take care of it whenever they want to take care of it,” Zimmerman said. “As long as it’s fair. When you do things early, like I’ve done in my career, you have to weigh the options for both sides. The club is obviously taking a risk by not making me play out all my years and having faith in me to continue to work hard and continue to get better. I can’t appreciate them enough for doing that.
“At the same time, we’re giving the club a deal. Because if I do continue to work and do continue to get better, which I think is very reasonable to say, then they get to negotiate with me without anyone else having a chance to. There’s kind of that happy medium. I’m going to have to give some, and they’re going to have to give some.”
Based on other contracts signed recently, Zimmerman could command roughly $200 million if they negotiate a deal before next season, according to estimates by several people in the game.
“If you get to two years left [before] free agency, you can talk,” Zimmerman said. “But if nothing works out, if you have one year before free agency, you might as well play your year out and see what happens.”
As a free agent, assuming he remains healthy and on his current progression, Zimmerman could command closer to $300 million.
“I think the whole point of the baseball system is, you put your time in, you stay with a team, and you get rewarded with being able to be a free agent,” Zimmerman said. “Obviously, I don’t want it to ever get to that point. But it’s not easy to be in the league for six, seven years. But if you do and you’re a good player, then I feel like you should get rewarded. . . . If you can be in the league that long and be successful, you should be rewarded with the contract you deserve.”
Zimmerman still identifies Virginia Beach, the place he grew up, as home. But every offseason he has spent less time there and more in Washington, and this year, for the first time, he stayed virtually all this winter in the area. He has become friends with other prominent D.C. athletes — the Capitals’ Mike Green lives nearby and the Redskins’ Chris Cooley is a frequent dinner companion — and formed bonds with regular folks who have nothing to do with sports.
This winter, Zimmerman attended the Miami Heat-Wizards game at Verizon Center. Through a mutual acquaintance, Zimmerman met Wale, the rapper who lives in the area. He knew that Zimmerman had chosen his song for his walk-up music. They chatted for a few minutes. “That,” Zimmerman said, “was pretty cool.”
Despite his youth, Zimmerman has become a D.C. sports fixture. His five-plus continuous years make him the longest-tenured National and one of the 10-longest tenured professional athletes among the five main Washington professional sports teams.
This spring, Zimmerman loosely followed the St. Louis Cardinals’ contentious, drama-filled negotiations with Albert Pujols. He called it “a tough situation” and said “that’s what we don’t want to get to.” He thinks about playing his entire career in Washington, the place it began, the place he calls home.
“You don’t ever see people do that anymore in sports,” Zimmerman said. “For me, it’s kind of like, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. It’s the perfect situation for my family, for me. It would be different if I didn’t like the city. I’ve kind of adopted this city. You just feel so comfortable, I don’t know if I want to change.”