Friday, February 20, 2009

Penny-Wise with the Face of the Franchise

The Nationals may have just missed their last chance to keep Ryan Zimmerman past his age 26 season, signing him to a one-year deal worth $3.325 million rather than signing him to a long-term deal at a discount.

Zimmerman is coming off an injury-riddled season that must have put some doubt in his mind (if witnessing the career-fizzling injures of friends Nick Johnson, John Patterson, Shawn Hill, and Chad Cordero didn't) about his ability to avoid injury for the next three years and score a big pay day in free agency. And in a down economy, everyone's getting less than they expect.

In that environment, the team had every opportunity to walk in and blow Zimmerman away with a deal that a year ago might have been considered a modest opening bid.

After watching Odalis Perez settle for a minor-league deal and Bobby Abreu sign for half of Eric Gagne's 2008 contract, I'm done trying to predict contract numbers in the current environment. But barring injury, it's hard to imagine that Zimmerman will ever be cheaper than he would have been now. Of course, that might have made Zim reluctant to do a long-term deal now too--he's gotta be thinking that if he can just go out there and do what he did when he was 21 years old (and maybe wait for the economy to settle down a little), he could dramatically improve his negotiating posture.

Still, if the team offered him a deal that would have seemed close to fair, even if Zimmerman had been healthy and the economy hadn't cratered, then surely he would have signed. There are no guarantees, and Zim is one ACL tear away from missing his last chance to set himself and his family up for life.

The team is facing similar risk-reward. If you commit $60 million or more in a player, and he gets hurt, that's a sunk cost. If you believe that Zimmerman's age 21 season was more fluke than harbinger (see Austin Kearns's career path if you doubt it's possible), then the team would be overpaying for merely solid play. But, on the other hand, if there is another level out there for Zim (and he's only 24!), he could command over $10 million a year for 6-7 years once he hits the open market, and we'll be watching the Face of the Franchise play his best years in an Angels or Red Sox uni.

I think the risk-reward calculation for the team tips clearly towards making the investment--buy out his arb years and his first 3 years or so in FA for ~$9-10 million a year, and worse case scenario (barring injury) you have a good #5 or #6-hole hitter with elite defense at a premium position. For a team that's used to blowing millions on a fraudulent teen, diabetic beluga, and drug-pushing, cradle-robbing has-been clubhouse cancer of a catcher--$60-70m for Zim seems like a pretty safe place to put your money.


WFY said...

I can't get worked up about Zimmerman only signing for one year. From his perspective, pushing hard for a contract next year probably makes more sense since the lineup should be improved and give him more opportunities for RBIs, etc.

An Briosca Mor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steven said...

I'm not worked up either. I don't agree with it, but it's a judgment call.

Dave Nichols said...

i don't think either party really wanted to sign a long-term deal at this point. both sides think they can win this game.

frankly, either side STILL can. Zim needs to prove he's healthy and taking the next step. if that's the case, then both sides will be looking to finally lock up a long term deal.

i don't think anything that happened yesterday precludes that from happening.

Michael said...

If a player is substantially hurt to the point that precludes performance, teams have insurance that kick in. A major, career threatening injury after a big contract signing wouldn't be a total loss of that sum, but it certainly would create gigantic headaches. To be honest though, I'm not entirely sure how these insurance policies work, but I know the Orioles were compensated for Albert Belle's inability to play, and I believe that Yankees received money from insurance from something Giambi related.

Also, am I the only one who thinks Ryan Zimmerman is vastly overvalued by most Nationals fans? Zim is a damn good player, and seems like a good person as well, but a great many Nationals fans seem to view him as the next Mike Schmidt or something. I know he's young and likely to improve, but just counting those who had enough PA's to qualify in 2008 there were 10 3rd basemen who had better OPSs than Zim's career mark. He qualified and finished 11th in that stat in 2006 and 2007.

Yeah, his fielding is impeccable, but 3rd basemen average what, about 1 chance every three innings???

Besides, can he even talk to teams for 2 years? Don't you have to 6 full seasons before you're granted FA?

All that said, I can never fully understand why franchises still try to nick and dime players who are already willing to sign at a discount. I see the primary level economics of, but it seems like bad business. Wrap up the home town guy for a below market, but not insulting contract, and you look great to your fans and probably boost season and other ticket sales, increase local TV viewership for games, and simply build a more viable business. But what do I know, I work in non-profits...

Will said...

Michael, in his second year in professional baseball (including the minors) Ryan Zimmerman was worth 4.2 wins. The next year? He was worth 5 wins. In past markets, if Zimmerman was a FA, that type of win value would warrant a $20mil per year contract.
In other words, Mark Teixeira has been worth 13.6 wins since 2006. Ryan Zimmerman has been worth 11.5 (including his shortened '08 season). Not too bad compared to a $180million man.

Zimmerman's value isn't his OPS, but a combination of very good defense and very good offense. Very few players are very good in both aspects of the game, but when you factor them together, Zimm is somewhere behind the ARod and Wrights of the league, but right in there with the Aramis Ramirezs and Miguel Cabreras. He's an elite player in the game, and if anything Nationals fans undervalue Zimm's contribution.

James Bjork said...

I think both sides are simply wondering who the real Ryan Zimmerman is. Is he really more like the rookie phenom, or more like a solid, but unspectacular injury-prone player. I don't think either side really knows at this point.

Also, isn't Zim represented by an agent who dislikes ANY free-agent years being included in a lock-up type contract?

James Bjork said...


You're not the only one who thinks Zim is vastly over-rated. I've seen him swing at too much absolute crap to think he will be an elite hitter. I'd much prefer David Wright, but Zim's who we have.