- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — Someday, the Washington Nationals believe they’ll sign Ryan Zimmerman to the kind of long-term deal reserved only for the game’s elite players.

Just not today.

The Nationals renewed Zimmerman’s contract yesterday, a procedural move in which the club imposed a $400,000 salary on the 22-year-old third baseman after the two sides couldn’t agree on terms through their own negotiations.

Washington general manager Jim Bowden and Zimmerman’s agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, met several times over the last week hoping to find common ground on either a multiyear or one-year deal. But with all major leaguers required to be signed today, Bowden couldn’t wait any longer and elected to unilaterally renew Zimmerman’s contract.

“We were working very hard on both a multiyear and a one-year deal for him, and unfortunately both sides have not been able to come to an agreement,” Bowden said. “We renewed the contract. He understands the business of it.”

Zimmerman, who made $327,000 (last year’s major league minimum) as a rookie, receives only a modest raise, though one that’s in line with other recent contracts given to players with similar experience. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who narrowly beat out Zimmerman for National League Rookie of the Year in 2006, was renewed by the Florida Marlins for $402,000, and the Nationals looked to that deal for guidance.

“Of course, you’d rather sign a contract, but it’s not like it doesn’t happen a lot,” Zimmerman said. “It’s not like I’m the only one, or anything like that. Nothing’s wrong, nothing’s bad. Now I just start playing.”

Yesterday’s developments don’t prevent the Nationals and Zimmerman from agreeing to a long-term deal at some point, either in the near or far-off future. He won’t become eligible for arbitration until 2009, and he can’t become a free agent until 2012.

Given that, there was no urgency for either side to get a deal done now, though it would have had its advantages. Zimmerman would have financial security after only one major-league season, and the Nationals would have locked up their franchise player at a potentially reduced price.

Without a long-term deal, Zimmerman could see his salary skyrocket once he reaches arbitration in two years.

“I think it’s very clear that Ryan wants to be here long-term. And it’s very clear the club wants him to be here long-term,” Bowden said. “Whether we go through the system or whether it’s a multi-year contract is not as important as the fact that fans know Ryan Zimmerman is our third baseman and will be our third baseman.”

The two sides could revisit the issue later this season or next winter, and when they do they surely will look to another young third baseman’s contract as a barometer. The New York Mets’ David Wright, a childhood teammate of Zimmerman, signed a six-year, $55 million extension last summer in the middle of his second full major-league season.

After hitting .287 with 20 homers and 110 RBI in his debut season, Zimmerman has picked up right where he left off. Despite going 0-for-3 yesterday against the Mets, he’s still hitting .368 with one homer and three RBI in seven exhibition games.

In fact, manager Manny Acta said he may have to start reducing Zimmerman’s playing time this spring to keep him from peaking too soon.

Acta watched Zimmerman from the opposing dugout last season as the Mets’ third base coach, but he has come to appreciate the Virginia Beach native even more since being hired by Washington. The manager can’t stop raving about his young, budding star.

“Special. Well mature beyond his age. Just a pro,” Acta said. “If you put him in another country or another planet, nobody would know how long this guy has been up here.”

With Zimmerman now under contract, the Nationals have signed everyone on their 40-man roster. Several positions remain up for grabs this spring, but Washington figures to open the season with a team payroll around $38 million, down from $63 million on Opening Day 2006.

Want more Nats? Check out Nats Home Plate.

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