The ramifications of Zimmerman’s new contract

If you went to bed early last night, the Nationals and Ryan Zimmerman finally worked out a new deal. Zimmerman will return on a one-year contract that guarantees him $2 million plus the potential to earn another $3 million in incentives, according to two sources familiar with the terms. The deal will become official once he passes a physical.

There are plenty of ramifications and follow-ups to this news, so let’s run through some of them this morning ...

* This deal is a bargain for the Nats. Zimmerman insisted all along he was willing to take a significant pay cut in order to return for his 16th season with the organization that made him its first draft pick, and he wasn’t kidding.

Zimmerman-Leg-Kick-Gray-Sidebar.jpgZimmerman’s salary last season was $18 million. The previous six seasons, it was $14 million. His salary hasn’t been this low since 2008, when he was an up-and-coming third baseman making $465,000.

Because he had said publicly he wasn’t going to play for any other franchise, Zimmerman really had little leverage in these negotiations. Not that he cared that much about it; the last thing he was trying to do at this point was insist on more money than he’s worth. But he’s definitely worth $2 million, probably a decent amount more if he keeps himself on the field enough to take 300-plus at-bats.

The extra incentives are based on games played and plate appearances, according to sources. So in essence, the healthier Zimmerman stays, the more money he makes. That’s exactly how it should be in this arrangement.

Here’s where the value really shows up: The Nationals could end up paying as little as $9 million to their projected first basemen this season. That’s $2 million for Zimmerman, $4 million for Howie Kendrick and $3 million for Eric Thames. And keep in mind that Kendrick will spend some of his time at second - and maybe even third - base.

Nats first basemen (Zimmerman, Kendrick, Matt Adams) combined last season for 37 homers, 128 RBIs and an .844 OPS while making $25 million. If this year’s group comes anywhere close to duplicating that production for only $9 million, it would be an absolute steal. Even if Zimmerman reaches all of his incentives (which would mean he was healthy and productive enough to play that much), the grand total of $12 million would remain a big-time bargain.

* Speaking of money, the Nationals remain comfortably below the luxury tax threshold with this signing. According to multiple sites that track these things, their competitive balance payroll is now roughly $194 million. Teams that go over $208 million this season are subject to the luxury tax.

What that means is the Nats could still sign another free agent this winter. Or, more likely, they could ensure they have extra space available to them this summer if they feel the need to bolster something at the trade deadline. Like maybe a third baseman. Or another starting pitcher. Or more bullpen help, because they always need bullpen help at the deadline.

* The Nationals 2020 infield now appears set. Barring some kind of unexpected development, they’ll head to West Palm Beach with the following seven infielders ticketed for roster spots:

1B Ryan Zimmerman
1B Eric Thames
1B/2B/3B Howie Kendrick
2B/SS/3B Starlin Castro
SS Trea Turner
3B/2B/SS Asdrúbal Cabrera
3B/2B/SS Carter Kieboom

Obviously, there’s no Anthony Rendon on that list, and that’s a problem. But the remaining group of seven has a chance to be pretty productive, assuming the at-bats get spread around and most of them live up to their potential.

Think of it this way: Zimmerman, Kendrick, Turner and Cabrera all were contributors on a World Series champion, and all return. Thames should be an upgrade over Adams, and Castro should be an upgrade over Brian Dozier. The only downgrade is Kieboom replacing Rendon, and we don’t really know what the highly touted 22-year-old is going to be yet. No, he’s probably not going to be an MVP and Gold Glove finalist, but he was a first-round pick for a reason, and we’re about to find out if the Nationals were right about him.

It should be noted that Wilmer Difo and Adrián Sanchez both remain on the 40-man roster. But if Kieboom makes the club coming out of spring training, it’s hard to see how the Nats would have a spot for either of those two utility men. Both are out of options, so that could make for some tricky decisions come March.

* Speaking of the 40-man roster, the Nationals now have 39 players on it. That leaves one remaining open spot that could be used either on one more offseason addition (a reliever?) or on a non-roster invitee to spring training that earns a job.

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