VIERA, Fla. — The scene itself was familiar to Ryan Zimmerman. After all, this wasn’t the first time the Washington Nationals’ third baseman had been asked to attend a press conference, say a few words, talk about himself and the only professional organization he’d ever known.
But Sunday morning, a few hours after signing a six-year, $100 million contract extension with a full no-trade clause that will guarantee him $126 million over the next eight seasons and is potentially worth $150 million over the next nine, he looked up and saw several faces he wasn’t expecting.
Almost 20 of Zimmerman’s teammates and coaches had crowded into the cramped room, so many there wasn’t enough chairs to hold all of them. They came to support the cornerstone of their franchise — the face of the franchise, as Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo joked was his “first name,” — as he discussed the contract that could keep him in a Nationals’ uniform until after his 36th birthday.
The contract that gives him the rare opportunity to spend his entire career with one team.
“It’s just something that we all wanted,” said Nationals closer Drew Storen.
“For years this guy has been taken for granted, in my mind, in the world of Major League Baseball,” said Rizzo, who’d made extending Zimmerman his No. 1 priority of this past offseason. “I’ve always said he’s one of the top 15 position players in the game. When he’s healthy, he’s as good as anybody.”
That alone would have been enough for the Nationals to want to keep Zimmerman past the end of his current contract, which runs through 2013. But it was Zimmerman, the person, that made this contract in particular one they felt they had to get done. A Virginia native and their best player since he debuted in September 2005, Zimmerman’s been everything the team could have asked for during its first seven years in Washington. An All-Star, a leader, a model citizen, a charitable figure, a Gold Glove winner, a Silver Slugger.
“A prince,” one Nationals official called him.
“It really crystallized for me during the negotiation with [Zimmerman’s agent, Brodie Van Wagenen of CAA],” Rizzo said. “Many people say that this isn’t about the money, that it’s about other things. When we were negotiating this contract not one time did he mention anything about money. This is all about being here, wanting to be here, wanting to be assured that he was going to be a Washington National. That to me says everything about Ryan Zimmerman that you need to say.”
In negotiations that were ongoing for roughly a year but still soared past Zimmerman’s self-imposed 10 a.m. Saturday deadline, a no-trade clause was “paramount,” Van Wagenen said. Ultimately, what they agreed on in principal late Saturday night, and officially Sunday morning, was a deal that ensures Zimmerman will remain in Washington at least for the next eight years.
The no-trade clause included in his extension doesn’t apply to 2012 and 2013, the years remaining on his current contract. But a person with knowledge of the deal said there are significant financial escalators built into the extension in the unlikely event that he is traded before 2014. The $24 million team option for 2020 includes trade protection as well under the 10-and-5 rights Zimmerman will have accrued by then with more than 10 years of major league service time and the last five of it with the same team.
“Without [no-trade protection] I don’t think we sign Zim to the long-term extension,” Rizzo said. “If the choice was Zim with a no-trade or having a player you could trade and not have Zim, I choose the former.
“With Mike Rizzo as GM of the Washington Nationals, he will not be traded in the next two years… My feeling on the matter is: Why would I trade a 27-year-old, 28-year-old All-Star player in the next two years? It doesn’t make a lot of sense on a lot of levels.”
The contract also contains a $10 million “personal services” clause, which defers $10 million of the guaranteed money until after his retirement, at which point it will be paid out over five years.
As the team’s first-ever draft pick insisted throughout the negotiations, the only point of him signing a “team-friendly” deal, which this one is with an average annual value of $15.75 in guaranteed money, was if it would be with this team.
“[The Nationals] have given me everything,” Zimmerman said, obviously humbled by the moment. “It felt right to give them something back, give them the rest of my career to produce and ultimately win a World Series.
“I’ve been here when the times were bad. They’ve done a great job of building this organization from the ground up. We have young guys that are just starting to get here, and we’re going to be good for a long time. I wanted to make sure I was here for that.”
He joins an elite group of players who are signed through the 2019 season. Only the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp, Angels’ Albert Pujols, Tigers’ Prince Fielder, Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki and Brewers’ Ryan Braun have contracts that run that long. He also gives the Nationals 12 key players under contract through at least the 2015 season.
Locking up Zimmerman, though, was the important for the Nationals to keep the young core of talent they’ve been building — many of whom watched proudly as Zimmerman spoke Sunday.
“Anything that comes with that contract, he deserves,” said left-hander John Lannan, who suffered through many of the Nationals’ darkest days with Zimmerman. “It’s the first of many, I think. Those types of deals, they have guys in this organization that are going to be in that position, but if anybody deserves it first, it’s him.
“I definitely wouldn’t have been too happy [if I had] to see somebody else [at third base],” Storen said. “Someone asked me the other day: ‘Who would it be if you absolutely had to have somebody get a hit for you?’ It’s him. He steps up every time.”
As news of Zimmerman’s extension circulated through the morning, the clubhouse buzzed. Think of the Nationals’ best moments as an organization, one person said — reflecting on the contract and the fact that it’d mean Zimmerman could wear a Nationals uniform for 16 straight years — and he’s a central figure in all of them.
But as with any long-term contract of this magnitude, there are always risks. The Nationals are gambling that Zimmerman will remain healthy after missing 60 games in 2011 with an abdominal tear and 56 games in 2008 with a shoulder injury. And that he’ll continue to perform at a high level — something the other $100-million-plus man on their roster, Jayson Werth, can attest isn’t as easy as it sounds.
The man who’s hit the most game-ending home runs in the major leagues since his debut didn’t seem to think it would be an issue.
“I love pressure,” Zimmerman said. “Ever since I’ve been here, I’ve wanted to be the guy that is up last in the ninth inning, I’ve wanted to be the guy that everyone looks to, I wanted to be the so-called leader.
“I’ve said it the whole time and I’ll say it the rest of my career that if you don’t want to be that guy then you’re in the wrong line of work. I relish being that guy. I love it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”