- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2009

VIERA, Fla.

The Washington Nationals on Thursday night were about 12 hours away from walking into a hearing in Arizona and telling Ryan Zimmerman - the face of the franchise - that he has one ugly face.

How ugly?

“The last time I saw a face like yours, it was on a clock and a cuckoo came out.”

“I’ve seen people with a face like yours before, but I had to pay admission.”

“If I had a face like yours, I wouldn’t say hello to people. I’d say, ‘Boo!’ ”

Too ugly to pay $3.9 million. Fortunately, it never came to that.

The Nationals, who were willing to pay $2.75 million, reached a settlement with Zimmerman before a scheduled arbitration hearing, before they were forced to take the makeup off the face of the franchise and reveal all the zits.

The parties agreed to a one-year, $3.325 million contract, so now Ryan Zimmerman is pretty again.

In an arbitration hearing, each side makes a case to persuade the arbitrator to pick its salary figure. The team’s job is to point out the player’s shortcomings. The Nationals would have had some ammunition.

Zimmerman put up impressive numbers in the 339 major league games that followed his first call-up in September 2005. He hit 44 home runs, drove in 207 runs, batted .282 and put on a defensive clinic at third base. His strong presence in the clubhouse only enhanced his reputation.

Last year, though, he missed nearly two months because of a shoulder injury. He finished with solid numbers - 14 home runs, 51 RBI and a .283 average in 106 games - but there was enough to let the team argue that the 24-year-old wasn’t worth the $3.9 million he was seeking.

Arbitration is an awkward process - it certainly doesn’t foster a long-term relationship between a team and its star.

“I’m glad that we were able to get an agreement with the guy and not go through the arbitration hearing, because it’s not a good process,” manager Manny Acta said. “I know what goes on in there, and I don’t think anyone wants to go in there and hear all the negative stuff being said about you.”

Zimmerman was not in spring training camp Friday; he was in Arizona waiting for the hearing when the agreement was reached. He is expected to be on the field Saturday.

Acta will love to see his face.

“He is the face of this franchise, so it is totally different when he is here with us,” Acta said. “We can’t wait to get him here.”

Zimmerman might have agreed to the $2.75 million figure the club submitted to the arbitrator if he could get a guarantee that no one ever would refer to him as the “face of the franchise” again.

That almost has become his nickname, and Zimmerman has gone out of his way to say he is not the only one in the clubhouse or on the roster and that he should not be burdened with being the identity of the team.

Yet when the club’s $20 million man, Adam Dunn, was introduced at a press conference last week, someone asked if he would be considered the most prominent player on the Nationals.

“Ryan Zimmerman is the face of this franchise,” Dunn said.

Team president Stan Kasten, who was in Viera on Friday, recognizes that the moniker isn’t something Zimmerman relishes.

“It is not fair to put too much attention on Ryan,” Kasten said. “We have 25 guys when we open the season, all of whom are important to us and all of whom deserve a lot of attention. It is good to have [Zimmerman’s contract] done and both sides being happy. But I feel that way about all the players, and they all deserve that kind of attention.”

And let’s face it - you can’t have the face of the franchise on a pay-as-you-go basis, year to year. You’ve got to make a commitment to that face.

I think it may happen this year. Zimmerman and the club have been talking about a long-term deal for a long time, but there is a sense now that it may finally get done.

“He means an awful lot [to the franchise],” Kasten said. “He has had a terrific start to his career, [and] a couple of bumps here and there. We have high hopes for him having a big-time career, and we have continued to talk about a multiyear [deal]. … We’re just not there yet, but we’re going to keep talking about it. If we can do it, we’ll do it.”

It certainly makes sense for the team, both from a baseball standpoint and as a signal to a disillusioned fan base of the ownership’s commitment. And it should make sense for Zimmerman based on what he has seen the economy do to the free agent market this winter. Getting paid for years to come makes a lot of sense in these times.

But Zimmerman could gamble. He could wait to see what kind of season he has.

He will benefit from the addition of Dunn and Josh Willingham to the lineup. He has been working with new hitting coach Rick Eckstein.

Given those things - and a full, healthy season - Zimmerman could have the kind of year that forces the team to say, “This is one pretty face.”

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