Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Dotting Ts and Crossing Is

The Nats agreed to contracts with 12 more players, which is certainly more impressive than it sounds. These players were all under the team's control, and none of them were arbitration eligible since they lacked the three full years of major-league service time. (Here's where the pedants point out that Tim Redding has more than three, and here's where I point out that he was signed as a minor-league free agent, which trumps the arbitration process for this season)

That's not the interesting part though ("Duh," says you). There are four players left unsigned. Two are arbitration cases (Patterson and Cordero) and the other two are Nook Logan and Ryan Zimmerman. I'm not sure why they can't come to terms with Logan. He has barely over a year's worth of service time and, as a result, the team can basically tell him what they're going to pay him.

Zimmerman's is a slightly different case. As a rookie, Zimmerman made the league minimum. The Nats are within their rights to offer a token raise, telling him to stick it. But, for obvious reasons, the cheapest solution might not be the smartest. The Nats did that with Chad Cordero, for example, paying him $525K last year, even though that was way above the minimum they needed to pay him. You want to keep your star guys happy, and if that makes you pay a few extra K, so be it.

The interesting question for me, though, is what to do about Zimmerman's future? He's clearly part of "The PLAN!" and is going to be the centerpiece of the franchise for years to come. So why not lock him up long-term like they did with Kearns?

Kearns has over three more years of service time and was already arbitration eligible. Zimmerman, on the other hand, won't even be eligible for arbitration until the 2009 season, and he won't be a free agent until 2012. So there's no pressing need to lock him up. But, if the Nats were to do it, they could likely do it at a lower price now than if they waited until 2009.

What would it take? First, the Nats would probably want to buy out all three arbitration years. They'd be guaranteeing themselves cost certainty. Under the arb process, salaries climb, climb, climb. And if Zimmerman ever turns some of those doubles into homers, he'll go through the roof. At a minimum, the Nats would want a 5-year deal -- 6, if they want to try to buy out one of those free agent years.

The dollar value would be a bit trickier. They'd have to figure out what he'd be likely to make if they let the arb process play out, then make adjustments for the value of inflation on contracts and money, as well as try to assign some value for the risk of the length of the deal. For that risk, though, they'd likely be able to get Zimmerman at a lower value because he'd be gaining long-term security, so if he had his leg gnawed off by a rogue shark while surfing off the coast, he'd still be set for life.

Just for sake of argument, let's assume that Zimmerman makes the following amounts:
'07: $400K
'08: $500K
'09: $4MM (first year of arb -- compare to the inferior Aramis Ramirez and his $3MM arb deal in 2003)
'10: $7MM
'11: $12MM

That gives us a rough estimate of about $24 million for those five years, with a reasonable chance that it could actually be higher than that. How much of a discount from that do you think the Nats could get? 5 for $18?

The nearest comparison of this I could find is what Tampa Bay did with its two young outfielders, Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford. Crawford, after his second full year (so the equivalent of Zimmerman at the end of this season) signed a 4-year, $15MM contract with club options that could buy out his first two free agent years. After his third season (with one missed to injury), Baldelli signed a three-year deal for $9 million with a 2-year, $17MM option for his first two free agency years. They sound more complicated than they are.

I'm confident the Nats have their contracts people considering this sort of thing, and it would certainly fit into the long-term vision of what they're trying to do. It's probably a bit much to read into the delay in renewing Zimmerman's contract, but it'd sure be nice if it happened.


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