As always, I have two key questions in mind, the first far more important than the second: 1. what can we do to speed the arrival of The First Great Nationals Team (FJB target date: 2011), and 2. what can we do to move towards respectability in 2009? The first step is to evaluate accurately and honestly where we stand now, and the next step is to look at opportunities to upgrade.
- Starting Third-Baseman: Ryan Zimmerman
Let's try to get a handle on what Zimmerman is based on what we know now. The way I see it, 2008 for him was like four seasons in one. First, he had what has become his typical season-starting slump. For his career, he has a .657 OPS in March/April, compared to an overall career OPS of .803. This season, he hit .632 OPS through the end of April, even worse than normal, but within the pattern we've come to expect.
Then, in May, right on schedule, he started to come on, especially in his power numbers. He hit .289 / .319 / .511 for the month. Signs were there that he was going to put together another good year after all, but there were reasons for concern as well.
Most troubling, he seemed to be regressing in terms of plate discipline, posting a Guzman-esque unintentional walk rate of 4.3 BB/AB before the shoulder. He's never really shown a great hitter's eye, but this was totally unacceptable. Whether he was 'pressing' because of the team's overall offensive problems or a getting screwed up by Lenny Harris or failing to respond to the league's adjustments to him is hard to know. Regardless this was a recipe for a major regression, not breaking out.
Then he got hurt. He lost all of June and most of July, and when he came back, the third part of his season saw him reduced to a singles hitter who lacked the power to drive the ball for extra bases. From his return on July 22 to August 26, he hit .287 / .358 / .352. Though his power was almost non-existent (SLG less than OBP), his unintentional walk rate more than doubled to 10.2 BB/AB. Finally, on August 27, he hit his first homer since coming back, and from there on out he was white-hot, crushing he ball to the tune of a .325 / .381 / .553 line while his BB/AB rate stayed high at 9.6.
If Zimmerman had stayed healthy, I think it's reasonable to assume that he would have had one other hot stretch similar to September and maybe hit like he did in May or a bit better the rest of the way. With that, he would have finished within spitting distance of that excellent PECOTA projection, even despite the dreadful start and walks problems.
So overall, I evaluate Zimmerman more or less no differently than I did a year ago. He's still a very good young hitter with a mix of power/average/speed tools that will allow him to be an above-average to all-star caliber player for another decade or more. To take the next step, he needs to improve his plate discipline and do something about those awful starts. But even if there isn't really 'another level' for Zimmerman, and 'all there is' is a 25 HR, .280 hitter who saves us 20 runs a year over replacement with his defense, you have a true championship-caliber contributor.
- Back-Up: Ron Belliard, Willie Harris, Alberto Gonzalez, Pete Orr, or Kory Casto
In the Minors
- Zilch, nada, bupkis
Courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors, here are the free agent third-basemen available this off-season:
Rich Aurilia (37)FJB's Take
Casey Blake (35)
Hank Blalock (28) - $6.2MM club option for '09 with a $0.25MM buyout
Willie Bloomquist (31)
Aaron Boone (36)
Russell Branyan (33)
Craig Counsell (38)
Joe Crede (31)
Nomar Garciaparra (35)
Mark Loretta (37)
Fernando Tatis (34)
Ramon Vazquez (32)
Let’s keep it simple: Re-Sign. Ryan Zimmerman. Long-Term. Now.
Zimmerman is arbitration-eligible for the first time in 2009 season, and in three years he’ll become a free agent as he’s entering his age-27 season. If the Nationals allow him to reach free agency on that date, it could easily cost over $150 million to re-sign him. If he goes out and starts hitting 30-35 homers a year or explodes in his walk year, he could drive that number to $200 million or more.
Our best chance to re-sign him at a discount would have been during the 2006 season, in his first year of major-league service time when he was still two years from arbitration. But we didn’t have an owner then, so we missed it. I’ve written before that Bowden could have protected us from this problem by holding back Zimmerman in the minors until late May 2006, but, never one to care about the long-term over drawing attention to himself in the short-term, he didn’t do that.
Last year, the team offered him a contract that was compared to Troy Tulowitzki’s six-year, $31 million deal. In fact, this was a silly low-ball offer because, although Tulo is probably a comparable talent, at the time Tulo was one full year further from free agency and arbitration than Zimmerman. Even with his sub-par season, Zimmerman stands a good chance of getting more than $5 million this year in arbitration, and his salary would only go up from there, so why would he have locked himself into that long-term last off-season?
The team’s handling of Zimmerman then smacked of the disingenuous approach they took with Aaron Crow—cherry-pick the smallest contract signed by any remotely comparable player, call that ‘the market,’ and then refuse to consider a dollar more. This approach is penny-wise and pound-foolish, as the team will only lose leverage as time goes by and have to pay even more later. At this point, the team should sit down with Zimmerman and do what it takes to get him locked up through at least age 30. Seven years and $60-65 million should do the trick, and if you can get him for less, more power to you. But his price tag is only going to go up from here.
I repeat: every day we wait he’s getting more expensive, and every day we wait, we’re getting closer to losing him. And if you think the season ticket renewals look bad now, just wait till Zimmerman’s playing for the Angels or Red Sox in 2012. There’s cheap-smart (passing on Zito, Silva, Jones) and there’s cheap-dumb (letting Crow walk over $900k). This would self-destructively, insanely, invade-Iraq-without-a-post-war-plan, idiotically cheap.
Don’t let your stubbornness make you stupid, Ted. Re-sign Zimmerman now.