While Mike Rizzo has finished most of his offseason heavy lifting, the Nationals general manager can’t sit back and coast until opening day against the Mets at Citi Field. What few holes existed on the blueprint for 2014 are filled; now Rizzo can turn his attentions to more far-reaching pursuits.
Right-hander Jordan Zimmermann and shortstop Ian Desmond are both in line for long-term extensions. Both want to remain in Washington, which is pretty logical considering they are both home-grown and both have experienced the lows of 100-loss seasons and the highs of reaching the postseason for the first time in 2012. The Nationals want both, figuring Desmond is hitting his prime as both a slick fielder and a dependable bat, and that Zimmermann is the perfect complement to Stephen Strasburg atop what is arguably the National League’s best rotation.
Simple, right? Both want long-term deals, the Nats want to retain both. So what’s the holdup.
With extensions looming in the not-too-distant future for Strasburg, left fielder Bryce Harper and others, Rizzo has to carefully balance the ledger sheet. Think of this in Rotisserie baseball terms for a minute: You’d like to populate your roster with stars, top to bottom, but that’s impossible when you’re locked into whatever base salary your league employs. The Lerners have deep pockets, but the financial wherewithal is not unlimited.
Couple this with Rizzo’s typical under-the-radar machinations - I liken it to the cone of silence employed by Maxwell Smart and The Chief in the old “Get Smart” sitcom - and you’ll be lucky to get any information out of the usually circumspect general manager. Mind you, I don’t completely take issue with the information blockade - after all, it’s not in Rizzo’s best interests to let agents, players, the media or other teams know his game plan.
“Those are discussions that will take place in private and in due time,” Rizzo said at the Winter Meetings. “Those are guys that we want to have as part of the organization for a long time. Those are things that we’ll discuss later on.”
So, presumably, the Nationals are still talking to both Desmond and Zimmermann after making first overtures months ago. They think they can fit both into their payroll, along with the future salary obligations they’ll have to meet. That’s good news for Nats fans - and for Zimmermann and Desmond.
But who’s likely to get signed first? Which deal is Rizzo’s priority? Each has two more seasons until free agency, and both are important.
Zimmermann picked a great time for his breakout, a 19-9 campaign with a 3.25 ERA and 1.088 WHIP. When Strasburg struggled to garner run support, Zimmermann became the Nats’ go-to pitcher, the guy they turned to whenever a skid threatened to get out of hand. More times than not, he came through. He’ll earn north of $8 million in arbitration this season and is in line for somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million in his final crack of arbitration. So what’s fair?
Pitching comparables are difficult to pinpoint for Zimmermann. The Rangers extended Matt Harrison for five years and $55 million in January, and Zimmermann seems to be in line for more. His representatives at SFX will drive hard based on the numbers, and Rizzo will hope Zimmermann will give the Nats some sort of hometown break. Otherwise, we’re talking really big money, which will impact Strasburg’s future negotiations. Either way, the righty is probably headed for a deal in the vicinity of $85 million, give or take.
It’s just my opinion, but I think Desmond will the first of the two to sign a long-term deal.
The two-time Silver Slugger winner and 2012 All-Star has become both the glue that holds the infield together and the conscience of the clubhouse. He’s a quiet leader, preferring to let his play speak instead of an endless stream of self-plaudits. A $7 million salary through arbitration would be expected. Comparables for Desmond that would help frame a long-term deal are tricky, too, but the Rangers’ Elvin Andrus signed for eight years and $120 million in April, while the Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki signed for an additional seven years and $134 million in December 2010. You can bet Desmond’s camp at Sport One will be waiting to see how much super-agent Scott Boras can extract for free agent Stephen Drew this winter - Drew is coming off a one-year, $9.5 million deal with the world champion Red Sox and wants four years; Desmond is a comparable defender and a significantly better offensive threat.
Rizzo has said he doesn’t expect to have either signed by spring training, but that could just be misdirection to allow the Nationals freer negotiations without much outside interference from the court of public opinion. The Nationals see both Zimmermann and Desmond as core pieces to build around, and how they conduct this round of business will be carefully watched by Harper, Strasburg and others who are further down in the pecking order. If Rizzo can’t do a deal he likes, either Desmond or Zimmermann (probably not both) could be a decent trade chip, similar to the deal that brought righty Doug Fister from the Tigers in November. But all parties hope that doesn’t happen.
If you’re Rizzo, who do you deem more important, Zimmermann or Desmond? Who do you extend first?