What Troy Tulowitzki’s contract might mean for Ryan Zimmerman’s next one

Before we begin, a disclaimer: What lies ahead is one of those wonky comparison pieces where I crunch numbers and try to ascertain what one player’s contract could portend for another in the future. Some of you like that stuff, and some of you hate it. If you’re in the latter group, and you wish to stop reading, that’s fine (I’ve already got your pageview anyway!). And if you’re in the former, read on.

Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki signed a seven-year, $134 million extension yesterday, lengthening a contract that was already scheduled to run through the 2013 season. The Rockies had an option on Tulowitzki for 2014, so this deal guaranteed the option year and added another six years onto the contract, keeping the shortstop in Denver through 2020.

There are plenty of reasons why that matters for Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. He was born two weeks before Tulowitzki. Both were college players drafted in the same year (Zimmerman went fourth overall in 2005; Tulowitzki went seventh that same year). Zimmerman debuted a year sooner than Tulowitzki, but both have become cornerstone players for their franchises at a young age. Tulowitzki’s teams have been in contention, which has helped him to higher finishes on MVP ballots, but the production of both players has been very, very similar.

Zimmerman has played almost 200 more games than Tulowitzki - a product of getting to the big leagues almost a full year sooner and staying healthy more often - but his career slash stats (average/OBP/slugging percentage) are .288/.355/.484. Tulowitzki’s are .290/.362/.495.

Since 2007, the two players’ numbers have practically dovetailed, with Tulowitzki holding a slight advantage over Zimmerman in every season but 2008, when both players battled injuries. But the margin between them is scant; they’ve been within 15 points of each other on average and OBP the last two years, and Tulowitzki has one more homer than Zimmerman in that time. They’ve both got a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger (though Zimmerman has two) and an All-Star appearance. Tulowitzki plays more of a premium position than Zimmerman, but the Nationals third baseman is a former shortstop and commands the left side of the infield like one. The similarity between the two is almost eerie. And so is the way they’ve been compensated; Tulowitzki got a six-year, $31 million deal after his second season, while Zimmerman got a five-year, $45 million deal after his third.

You’d better believe Brodie Van Wagenen, Zimmerman’s agent, took note of what happened with Tulowitzki. Why? Because like the Rockies shortstop’s old deal, Zimmerman’s contract is scheduled to expire after 2013, when he’ll be just 29 years old and ready to cash in on the biggest deal of his career. By then, he would presumably be at the peak of his skills, just as Tulowitzki would be. The Rockies saw that, and pre-empted a situation where Tulowitzki could be approaching free agency as one of the premier talents in the game. It will cost them dearly, but it would have been more expensive had they waited.

Now, here’s where there’s a difference between the two players: Tulowitzki has been to the playoffs - twice - while Zimmerman hasn’t tasted a winning season. He’s watching the Nationals’ offseason moves with keen interest, and while he wants to stay in Washington. I don’t see him signing away the rest of his career without the Nationals proving they can win. It’s part of the reason he was so outspoken last month about the team resigning Adam Dunn; when he’s chosen to take a stance on something, it’s almost always been the need for the Nationals to add or keep veteran talent. They should have Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper by the time Zimmerman’s current contract is close to its expiration date, but would it be prudent for them to wait that long? Only time will tell, but presented with almost the same situation with Tulowitzki, the Rockies didn’t want to stall.

I’ll be very interested to see where the dance between the Nationals and Zimmerman goes over the next season or two. If Tulowitzki’s deal tells the Nationals anything, it’s that Zimmerman’s next one is going to be expensive. And for two players who have been on almost twin tracks, the one difference between them - postseason experience - could become a much bigger factor in the not-so-distant future.