- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Throughout his tenure with the Washington Nationals, Ryan Zimmerman has proclaimed his relationship with the organization’s front office to be one of mutual respect and cordiality.

Washington’s “Face of the Franchise” is about to find out just how strong that relationship really is.

Still unable to work out terms of a one-year contract with their star third baseman or three other players, the Nationals exchanged formal arbitration figures with Zimmerman, Josh Willingham, Scott Olsen and Shawn Hill on Tuesday.

Unless the club and Zimmerman can overcome a sizeable disparity in contract offers ($1.15 million) in the next few weeks, the two sides will be forced to make their cases in front of a three-member arbitration panel.

Zimmerman, who earned $465,000 in his third full season in the majors, is now asking for $3.9 million. The Nationals countered with an offer of $2.75 million.

The disparity in figures is likely a product of Zimmerman’s difficult-to-quantify 2008 season. Plagued by a tear in his right shoulder that forced him to the disabled list for two months, he still hit .283 - one point above his career average - but was limited to 14 homers and 51 RBI, both well below the numbers he posted in his first two seasons.

Washington appears to have submitted an offer based on his most recent performance. Zimmerman and agent Brodie Van Wagenen appear to have based their figure on his full body of work.

The two sides, which have held discussions on a long-term deal on and off since spring 2007, still could come to terms on their own before an arbitration hearing, which would take place in Arizona sometime between Feb. 1 and 21. Those hearings have been known to become quite awkward - the player sits across the table from his general manager, who argues why the player isn’t worth as much money as he believes.

The Nationals face similar dilemmas with the other three arbitration-eligible players.

Willingham and Olsen, each acquired in a November trade with the Florida Marlins, present nearly identical cases. Each player made $405,000 last season and is seeking $3.5 million this season. Washington countered with slightly different offers for each player: $2.55 million for Willingham, $2.5 million for Olsen.

Like Zimmerman, Willingham’s 2008 stats were hindered by time lost because of injury. The 29-year-old outfielder hit .254 with 15 homers and 51 RBI in 102 games but posted significantly more impressive numbers during his first two full seasons as a big leaguer.

Olsen, 25, has been a bit more consistent during his three years in the majors. The left-hander went 12-10 with a 4.04 ERA as a rookie in 2006, then fell to 10-15 with a 5.81 ERA the following year before bouncing back to go 8-11 with a 4.20 ERA last season.

Hill, whose promising career has long been beset by arm injuries, could have a tough time arguing for a raise from $402,000 to $775,000. He has never made more than 16 starts in a season, and he was just 1-5 with 5.83 ERA last year before being shut down with persistent pain in his right arm. The Nationals offered the 27-year-old $500,000.

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