- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — From the moment they selected him fourth overall in the 2005 draft, the Washington Nationals said they envisioned Ryan Zimmerman becoming a franchise stalwart for the next decade.

Less than two years later, are the Nationals ready to make a major financial commitment to ensure that happens?

Zimmerman could find out this morning, when he and his agent are due to meet with Washington general manager Jim Bowden and president Stan Kasten to discuss a possible long-term contract extension.

The meeting between Bowden, Kasten, Zimmerman and agent Brodie Van Wagenen may produce only a one-year, minimal salary deal, the kind most major leaguers with one season of experience typically get. At this stage of his career, the 22-year-old third baseman has to accept whatever terms the team offers. And in this case, that probably means a salary in the range of $500,000 for the 2007 season.

But the Nationals are willing to talk about a long-term contract, one that could cover six or more years and cost the club more than $50 million, but one that could lock up the young star through his arbitration and possibly some of his free-agent years.

And for the right price, Zimmerman (who made the league minimum of $327,000 last season) said he would sign on the dotted line.

“It would be nice to be here for a long time,” he said. “I like it. I like the city. It’s a good place. It’s going in the right direction.”

Bowden and Kasten both declined to discuss negotiations with Zimmerman, but Kasten said before yesterday’s exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles that he has no objections to locking up a player after only one major league season. He said he would be far more inclined to sign a second-year position player than a pitcher, but acknowledged it would have to be a unique situation.

Few baseball players would even merit consideration for such a contract at this early stage of their career, but Zimmerman has begun to establish himself as a budding star. He narrowly lost the National League Rookie of the Year race to Florida Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez after hitting .287 with 20 homers and 110 RBI last season, putting him in a category with some of the league’s best young players.

Just this week, the Philadelphia Phillies held talks with Ryan Howard (who has 1 years of major league service time) about a long-term deal that could have reached nine figures before the club finally renewed the young slugger’s contract for $900,000.

Van Wagenen likely will use New York Mets third baseman David Wright’s recently signed six-year, $55 million extension as a starting point for negotiations with the Nationals.

A comparable contract for Zimmerman would dwarf anything currently held by a member of Washington’s roster, but it would fall in line with ownership’s stated goal of building a championship-caliber club for the long haul. Kasten and members of the Lerner family already have shown a willingness to lock up their young players. Right fielder Austin Kearns signed a three-year, $17.5 million extension last month, and catcher Brian Schneider (four years, $16 million) and first baseman Nick Johnson (three years, $16.5 million) each signed a year ago when Major League Baseball still owned the team.

Zimmerman said those contracts make him more likely to want to sign now with the Nationals.

“Yeah, you can kind of see the way it’s going,” he said. “What they want to do — to kind of have a foundation that you’ve already locked down — definitely helps. All of us get along really well and like to hang out and play together. So that definitely makes it a lot easier.”

If the Nationals and Zimmerman can’t come to terms on a deal that works for both sides, there’s still no threat of him leaving the organization for another five years. Zimmerman won’t become arbitration eligible until 2009 and can’t become a free agent until 2012.

But if they lock him up now, the Nationals could save money over the long run by keeping Zimmerman’s annual salaries relatively modest.

Zimmerman will have to keep all those factors in mind when he sits down with Bowden and Kasten this morning.

“You’re obviously going to give up some money for the security, because they’re taking a chance at such a young age,” he said. “But on the other hand, you can’t give up too much. It’s got to be right around what you think you would earn if you played it out through arbitration. It’s something my agent and all of them will work through tomorrow.”

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