- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2008

VIERA, Fla.

Ryan Zimmerman’s locker sits first in line among those of the position players in the clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium.

There is no message in that, supposedly.

Zimmerman’s was second last year, next to that of Brian Schneider. After Schneider got traded, it was just the natural progression of things.

But make no mistake — if Ryan Zimmerman wasn’t one of the most respected players on this team, one of the most talented and perhaps the most important player in the brief history of the Washington Nationals, his place in the clubhouse wouldn’t be so prominent.

The question is will his locker stay there? Ten years from now, will Zimmerman sit at the same locker at Space Coast Stadium, or will he be dressing someplace else? If one day Ryan Zimmerman wasn’t at the first locker, it would mean a lot.

As he enters his third full season, Zimmerman is locked into that locker for the next four seasons. He and his agent wanted to lock in more time by negotiating a long-term contract. But talks with management failed to yield a deal, and Zimmerman’s contract likely will be renewed by the team for a little more than $400,000 this season. He remains year-to-year, which is fine for everyone involved right now.

“It’s good to talk about it,” Zimmerman said yesterday while sitting in front of his locker. “I don’t have to do anything for four years, and they don’t have to do anything for four years. They know I don’t want to go anywhere. I’ve told them I don’t want to go anywhere. There are no hard feelings. It is healthy to talk about it. To be honest with you, I don’t deal with it that much. It is more them and my agent. The relationship is fine. There are no bad feelings.”

Which, of course, is exactly why the Nationals should give Zimmerman a long-term deal now.

There are no hard feelings now, in large part because of the kind of guy Zimmerman is — a decent young man with intelligence and perspective. Though he won’t say so, Zimmerman has enough of both to realize that sooner or later the Nationals are going to have to pay him, and it’s not going to get cheaper.

He is 23 and coming off a season that was considered subpar even though he hit 24 home runs and drove in 91 runs. In his rookie season the year before, Zimmerman drove in 110 runs, hit 20 home runs and 47 doubles and batted .287. The expectations are higher this season, when the Nationals move into a hitter-friendly ballpark with a lineup that provides Zimmerman more protection.

“Last year people said, ‘Well, he didn’t have the great year that people expected,’ but he still hit over 20 home runs and drove in 90-something runs,” manager Manny Acta said. “He is just 23 years old. He is going to continue to get better. I would take that type of production out of a 23-year-old kid any day, but I know this year can be the start of a streak of 30 homers, 100 RBI year for him. At 23, you are not done improving, and he knows that. You will see it, especially as a hitter.”

Nationals management responded to public comments by Zimmerman’s agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, by saying the club would not give Zimmerman a record-setting deal. The club is using the signings of young players like Troy Tulowitzki and Grady Sizemore — deals in the six-year, $30 million range — to set the parameters.

“We’re not going to set all new markets with him,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “We’re not going to change the pay scale of Major League Baseball for one player.”

This one player, though, is different from a Sizemore or Tulowitzki. Neither of those players is the face of his franchise. The Nationals still are establishing their identity, and Zimmerman is as close as it comes to being that identity. That presence only will grow because this is a young man who fills that role as well as anyone can imagine.

So who is drawing this line in the sand — Bowden, team president Stan Kasten or the Lerners themselves?

They may believe they are holding the line, and for the next four years they indeed control Zimmerman. But sooner or later, they are going to have to pay him to keep that space in the locker room here intact — and later will cost them a lot more than sooner.


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