- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The day the Washington Nationals drafted Ryan Zimmerman, general manager Jim Bowden didn’t hesitate to compare his new third basemen to some of the best ever: Brooks Robinson, Mike Schmidt, Scott Rolen.

Plenty of eyes rolled, as if a 20-year-old from Virginia Beach could legitimately be lumped with those names. Bowden, though, meant what he said, and the evidence two years later points overwhelmingly in his favor.

Zimmerman has lived up to the hype. He reached the major leagues less than three months after getting drafted. He won the regular third base job the following spring. He nearly won National League Rookie of the Year honors after hitting .287 with 20 homers, 110 RBI and displaying sparkling defense and a penchant for the dramatic.

And with Alfonso Soriano, Jose Vidro and Livan Hernandez playing elsewhere, he’s now poised to become the face of the Nationals franchise for years to come.

It’s a role Zimmerman is ready to embrace.

“Oh, of course,” he said. “If you play sports and you don’t want to be that guy …”

The Nationals have every intention of making Zimmerman that guy. They don’t hide the fact they’re building their team around him and expect him to be their third baseman for the next decade.

How highly do the Nationals think of him? This spring Bowden and team president Stan Kasten met with Zimmerman and his agent to discuss a long-term contract that could have locked him up for six or more years. The two sides couldn’t agree on terms and cut off talks for now, but the mere fact Bowden and Kasten were willing to consider a mammoth, guaranteed contract for a player in only his second full season spoke volumes.

All this hype might get to some players’ heads, but Zimmerman looks at it a different way.

“You take it as a compliment and try to work even harder to prove them right,” he said. “It’s just another motivational factor.”

If that’s the case, then how much is Zimmerman going to be motivated by Bowden’s latest comparison? Asked to describe the qualities that make his young third baseman a franchise player, the GM invokes the name of an even loftier star.

“I find it difficult to describe, but when you’re around the person, it’s very easy to identify,” Bowden said. “You walk into the Yankees clubhouse and you see Derek Jeter, it’s pretty simple. He’s special. When you walk in here and you see Ryan Zimmerman, it’s pretty special.”

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