- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2012

VIERA, Fla. — With third baseman Ryan Zimmerman’s deadline for an agreement on a contract extension looming, Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo met with Zimmerman’s agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, on Thursday.

The meeting, which a source confirmed to The Washington Times, could prove integral in Washington making the face of its franchise a National for life. Zimmerman has said if a decision isn’t reached by Saturday he’d table contract discussions until next offseason.

Early Thursday morning, Rizzo said he was “hopeful” the sides would come to an agreement.

“I think it would take something off our plate for the future,” Rizzo said. “We have Ryan for two years anyway, but I just think it would kind of put a punctuation on Zim, at least, knowing that he’d be with us long, long term.”

Zimmerman’s current contract, signed at the start of the 2009 season, carries two more years and $26 million. He set a similar deadline of Opening Day when the sides were negotiating that one, and while it wasn’t announced until after the season had started, it was agreed upon earlier.

Still, for the first draft pick in Nationals history, this will be the contract that defines his career - and it could be a seminal moment for the franchise as well. As a team on the rise, with the majority of players in the early stages of their careers, the signing could send a positive message to the other players who see Zimmerman as the team’s cornerstone.

He’s “the franchise guy,” as outfielder Bryce Harper — one of the many players on the roster the Nationals could be in a similar position with down the road — said Thursday.

“When you do these deals you really have to know the person you’re doing it with because you’re committing long, long term,” Rizzo said, referring to a contract that could be anywhere from five to eight years and worth between $120 million and $160 million. “I think it would send a message [to] the other guys that if you’re a great, productive player and a good citizen, and a good teammate then, yeah, we want to keep you guys here long-term.”

In his seven years with the Nationals, Zimmerman has become a leader. It happened quietly, befitting of Zimmerman’s even-keeled demeanor. And in a clubhouse littered with athletes who’ve filtered onto the major league roster after him — whether from the minor leagues, trades or free agency — they’ve taken notice.

“Zim, I like to say he’s like the silent assassin,” said Michael Morse, the man who’ll be protecting Zimmerman in the batting order this season. “You look at him, he works very hard, he does his routine. He never argues, he’s never up, he’s never down, he’s always confident and consistent. In this game, consistency is one of the biggest things you can [have] and he leads by example that way.

“Who wouldn’t want Zim on their team? I think that he means a lot here, and I think [the Nationals] know that and he knows that.”

Aside from his high-caliber play, Zimmerman has been a model citizen. Even when it has come to negotiating his contract, Zimmerman has maintained publicly that his goal is not to sign a deal that would prohibit the Nationals from being a better team.

“For me, it’s never been completely about money,” he said Wednesday. “I enjoy it here. I think when you get to a certain point, how much more could you really need? When you’re starting to talk the figures that you talk, for me, being in a place where you’re comfortable and where you enjoy being and you’re familiar with everyone is worth more than an extra, whatever, how many million a year.”

Speaking Thursday, Rizzo appeared at least moderately comfortable with the status of the negotiations, but if things can’t be worked out by Saturday it does at least bring up the possibility of life without Zimmerman in D.C.

“It’d be weird,” Harper said. “It’d actually be a lot different, I think, not having him around. Seeing him in the clubhouse daily, he works hard. He works his butt off and he’s really good with all the young guys. It’d be weird.”

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