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.