Spring storylines: Zim's contract

Spring storylines: Zim's contract
February 14, 2012, 1:47 pm
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It has only been 34 months since Ryan Zimmerman and the Nationals last agreed to a long-term contract, the five-year, 45 million deal that ensured the face of the franchise would continue to hold that title into the prime of his career.

So why worry about his next contract already, with Zimmerman unable to become a free agent for another two years?

Because that's the way baseball works, and the time to lock up marquee players is right now, before they get too close to free agency.

Clubs that let their top stars reach the final year of their contracts take an awfully big risk. And as we've seen lately, they often wind up losing their man. Just ask the Cardinals if they wish they had locked up Albert Pujols two years ago, and the Brewers if they wish they had done something to keep Prince Fielder.

So 2012 figures to be an important year for the Nationals in their quest to keep Zimmerman in a curly W cap for the rest of his career. And, if you believe Zimmerman, the window of opportunity won't remain open much longer.

Citing his desire not to become a distraction to his teammates, the 27-year-old third baseman has let the Nationals know he doesn't want to negotiate a deal after he reports for spring training.

Does that mean the two sides have only one more week to get something done? Not really. Zimmerman may establish artificial deadlines in his mind, but there's no reason he can't extend it into March or beyond, if need be. In fact, that's exactly what he did three years ago when negotiating his current contract.

Zimmerman arrived in Viera in Feb. 2009 saying he wanted to get his contract worked out right away, early in camp and certainly before Opening Day. But the process dragged on through the entire spring, and it wasn't until 15 minutes before the season's first pitch when Zimmerman and the Nationals agreed to the basic framework of his 45 million extension. Even then, there were still plenty of details that had to be worked out before the final contract was signed on April 20.

So there's no reason to believe a similar process can't play out again over the next two months, or perhaps even into the summer.

Why hasn't a deal already been struck? Zimmerman has made it clear he wants to stay in D.C., having long since been convinced the franchise will become a winner. And the Nationals are committed to keeping their first-ever draft pick in uniform for the long haul, making this negotiation one of their top priorities for the coming months.

It's never as easy as it sounds, though, no matter how much goodwill has been established by both sides. You're talking about what's likely to be at least a seven-year extension worth perhaps 140 million or more.

Those kind of deals don't just come together overnight. They take a lot of back-and-forth discussion, some strong differences of opinion and often a good bit of creativity before they are finalized. And the Nationals and Zimmerman's agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, have been working on this one since last year, though to date they haven't made enough progress to believe a deal is imminent, according to sources familiar with the discussions.

Why the difficulty in finding common ground? Perhaps in part because of the inconsistent nature of Zimmerman's big-league career to this point. He's twice in the last four years spent considerable time on the disabled list, missing two months in 2008 with a small tear in his shoulder and then missing another two months last season with a torn abdominal muscle.

Those injuries have prevented Zimmerman from posting consistently big numbers at the plate, with those sub-par 2008 and 2011 seasons sandwiched around his stellar 2009 and 2010 campaigns when he hit .299 with an average of 29 homers and 96 RBI.

The Nationals aren't overly concerned that injuries are going to continue to sidetrack Zimmerman's career -- these haven't been chronic ailments and in both cases he made a full recovery -- but they are somewhat reluctant to pay out a huge sum to a player who has yet to establish his dominance over a long period of time.

On the other hand, Zimmerman understands now might not be the best time to sign an extension, not with his value down a bit following that injury-plagued season. This is likely to be the last major contract he signs, and he doesn't want to squander the opportunity by agreeing to a lesser deal when his value is not at its peak.

It takes two to tango, and until the Nationals and Zimmerman are together in step, a deal won't be reached.

If Zimmerman really won't let negotiations stretch into the season, there's a limited window of opportunity to get something done. But if the Nationals hold firm on what they're willing to offer, there won't be much discussion to be had.

All of which could make for an intriguing spring for this franchise and the young man who has embodied it more than anyone else for nearly seven years.