Big contracts put Zimmerman in line for huge payday

The Nationals came back from the Winter Meetings empty-handed, shut out in their quest to find a starting pitcher, a center fielder who can hit leadoff and some punch off the bench. Not that Ryan Zimmerman is happy that he doesn’t have someone a few spots ahead in the batting order to drive in on a regular basis, but general manager Mike Rizzo’s inability to cross anything off his shopping list in Dallas could pay some dividends for the third baseman.

Rizzo hopes to re-sign Zimmerman to an extension past his current deal, which was cut in April 2009 and runs through 2013. Zimmerman wants to stay in D.C. Because he’s considered the face of the franchise - well, until Stephen Strasburg and/or Bryce Harper get themselves established - it’s in both parties’ interests to come to an agreement.

Zimmerman wants to atone for an injury-plagued 2010 and show his true value to the Nationals. Former manager Jim Riggleman compared Zimmerman to Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson, Davey Johnson’s old teammate in Baltimore, in terms of fielding prowess. As cornerstones go, Zimmerman is as solid as they come. And he was the Nats’ first draft choice back in 2005, when he was picked fourth overall, so he’s grown up with the franchise in D.C.

So how does the Nats’ quiet time in Dallas help Zimmerman? Simply put, the money was flying at the Winter Meetings. When the Nats were one-upped by the Marlins, who gave four years and $58 million to Mark Buehrle to trump Washington’s three-year offer of between $45-$48 million, it should have signaled to Rizzo that he’d better get cracking before whatever relatively reasonable parameters he’s discussed with agent Brodie Van Wagenen of CAA become a thing of the past.

Jose Reyes (six years, $106 million), Heath Bell (three years, $27 million) and Buehrle broke the bank in Miami, where the Marlins have been traditionally thrifty. Albert Pujols (10 years, $254 million) and C.J. Wilson (five years, $77.5 million) struck it big in Anaheim. The Nats gave Jayson Werth seven years and $126 mllion last winter, and it’s now time to pay up for Zimmerman.

Now, unlike some of his contemporaries, Zimmerman has given off the vibe that being appreciated and part of an organization bent on winning count as much as the number of digits on his paycheck. Before he changes that tune and becomes unaffordable, Rizzo needs to lock him up to a long-term deal, then return to filling holes. I’m not sure anyone is going to mutter the term “hometown discount,” but if Zimmerman is willing to take less to maintain his comfort zone, I’m sure the Nats won’t argue. Face it, that leaves more money to fill other needs.

As of the GM meetings in Milwaukee last month, there were no formal discussions - no proposals exchanged, no timetable established, nothing more than vague hints that both parties are willing to work toward a common goal. Zimmerman doesn’t want to go to spring training 2013 without an extension, or he’ll test free agency. And once a player gets that close, he’ll usually dip his toe in the water. When that happens, it becomes exponentially more difficult to get a deal done.

Nobody in NatsTown wants to think that there could soon be a vacancy at third base, least of all the principals who will hopefully be deep in negotiations in the near future. What’s been going on in the background will soon be very front burner for the Nationals.

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