With 29.2 Wins Above Replacement in the past six seasons, Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman has the 11th-most WAR during that period. You read that right: 11th. That’s more than Adrian Gonzalez. More than Jose Reyes. More than Mark Teixeira. More than Adrian Beltre.
I don’t know about you, but I was surprised by that. And I spend a lot of time on the FanGraphs leader boards. But there are at least three people (actually, I’m sure there are many more) who know exactly how much WAR Zimmerman accumulated in the past six seasons: Zimmerman, his agent and Nationals’ general manager Mike Rizzo.
Zimmerman has played his entire career with the Nationals, and he’s said publicly that he’d like to finish his career with the Nats. His current 5-year, $45 million contract — which covered his last three years of arbitration-eligibility (from 2009 to 2011) and will cover his first two years of free agency (2012-2013) — expires soon. The deal was heavily back-loaded, so the Nationals will pay Zimmerman $12 million in 2012 and $14 million in 2013. Both sides have expressed interest in getting a new, long-term deal done now and are believed to be close on terms. But Zimmerman will table any extension talks once spring training begins. That leaves a three-week window to negotiate a new agreement, or wait until next winter.
What makes sense for a long-term deal between Zimmerman and the Nationals? It’s an interesting question for several reasons, but particularly because there aren’t many comparable contracts to point to.
Let’s talk defense first. Using both UZR and DRS, Zimmerman’s been the best defensive third baseman in the National League over the last six years. He did falter some in 2011, perhaps the result of the abdominal surgery that kept him out of action for much of May and June, but he’s been more than rock solid at the hot corner since his debut. If Scott Rolen had stayed healthy, and had played in the National League all six years, he would have edged out Zimmerman, but not by much. Pablo Sandoval is gaining quickly (as I discussed here), but he’s only been in the majors since mid-2008.
Evan Longoria and Adrian Beltre set the defensive gold standard at third in the American League, and their offensive output is close enough to Zimmerman’s (but better) to potentially provide some guidance on the long-term contract for Zimmerman. But Longoria is in the midst of a deeply-discounted long-term deal with the Rays signed at the beginning of his career, in which he’ll be paid $17.5 million for all six years prior to free agency. And Beltre is entering his fifteenth season, and playing under his third free-agent contract, a 6-year/$96 million deal with Rangers that runs through 2016. Neither is a good fit for trying to value Zimmerman over the next eight years or so.
Offensively, Zimmerman’s been — quietly — posting very good numbers. He has a career slash of .287/.353./.478, a wOBA of .357, and a wRC+ of 118. Although his ISO sits just under .200, he has hit 128 home runs. And while he’s no speed demon on the base paths, he does have 25 career steals. Based on those numbers, Troy Tulowitzki is a potential comp, but he signed his 10-year/$157 million deal with the Rockies when he was still three years from free agency, and in the midst of a 6-year/$31 million contract. So he was further from free agency, and starting off with a less valuable contract, than Zimmerman.
The player who may be the best comp for Zimmerman is Matt Kemp. This winter, with one year remaining until free agency, Kemp signed an 8-year/$160 million contract with the Dodgers. He’ll be paid $10 million in 2012, but the figures escalate from there, ending in five consecutive years at $21.5 million.
Kemp and Zimmerman have remarkably similar offensive numbers, if not quite the same skillset. Kemp’s career slash is .294/.350/.496, a wOBA of .364, for a wRC+ of 126. He walks less and strikes out more than Zimmerman, but he has more power and speed. Zimmerman more than makes up for the difference with his superior defense, but Kemp plays an “up the middle” position where offense isn’t as expected as it is at third base. The market has historically paid more for five tool players than defensive wizards at corner positions, and of course, Kemp was coming off an MVP-caliber season, so his potential was at the forefront of the conversation. Zimmerman can point to Kemp as a comparable situation, but the Nationals will probably decline to offer him the same kind of deal.
That gives us an expected AAV less than $20M for Zimmerman going forward, but certainly more than the $14M he’ll make in the last year of his current contract. Split the difference, and maybe the AAV ends up in the $17M range. The big question is going to be number of years. Zimmerman spent considerable time on the disabled list in 2008 and 2011 and has had a variety of other dings and dents in his career. On the other hand, he’s just 27 years old, and very much in his prime. Locking up Zimmerman until 2019 doesn’t seem crazy at all.
There are many ways for the two sides to move forward. They can rip up Zimmerman’s existing contract and ink a new deal starting in 2012. Or they can simply agree to a contract extension starting in 2014. Zimmerman has said that he’s willing to be flexible on how his contract is paid out over time, to give the Nationals the opportunity to sign other big-ticket players. So they can front-load a deal, back-load a deal or do it any other way. But, in the end, if the Nationals want to keep Zimmerman around, they’ll probably need to go north of $120 million over seven or more years to get it done.