Zimmerman is, in the words of general manager Mike Rizzo, "the face of the franchise." That phrase is used so commonly with the 27-year-old third baseman that Rizzo even joked, "That's his first name." He was the organization's first draft pick (No. 4 overall in 2005) after relocating to Washington and made his major league debut as a September call-up that same season. Now, this new contract -- which includes a post-playing career personal services contract and no-trade protection -- ensures that Zimmerman will be a National for life.
"I've given them the rest of my career to produce here and ultimately win a World Series," he said. " ... It's where I want to be. It's where I've always wanted to be."
The no-trade clause -- only the second handed out by Rizzo, who extended the same to right fielder Jayson Werth last winter -- was a critical point in the negotiations. Rizzo felt comfortable doing so because he considers Zimmerman one of the top-15 all-around players in the game.
"The ability to ensure that he was a Washington National was paramount," said Brodie Van Wagenen, Zimmerman's agent.
Zimmerman is a very good offensive player. He is a lifetime .288 hitter (career-high .309) with a .355 on-base percentage (career-high .388) with an average of 25 home runs per 162 games (career-high 33). He has won two Silver Sluggers, been named to one All-Star team and received MVP votes in two seasons. But those numbers alone aren't so eye-popping that one would expect eight guaranteed years of compensation at well over nine figures.
To appreciate his value to the Nationals, one must appreciate that so much of his production, however, is in his defense. He won a Gold Glove in 2009 and has been among the game's best fielding third basemen throughout his career. From 2006-2011 he ranks fourth in the majors with a 52.9 Ultimate Zone Rating, meaning he has saved that many runs with his defense; he trails only Adrian Beltre, Evan Longoria and Scott Rolen. His UZR/150 (i.e. UZR prorated to 150 games or roughly one season of playing time) is a 10.6, which ranks sixth among players who have logged at least 3,000 innings (500 per season) at the position. If he can maintain a high level of play at third base -- the way Rolen has, for instance -- Zimmerman will prove his worth.
Any long-term contract has inherent risk, and that's the gamble the Nationals are taking, especially because, if there's any knock on Zimmerman's game, it is his durability. Though in three of his six full seasons he played at least 157 games, in three of the last four years he has spent time on the disabled list and averaged 116 games in those seasons.
When a player has multiple remaining years on his contract, it's natural to ask, "What's the rush?" That was the case when the Rockies locked up Troy Tulowitzki and the Brewers inked Ryan Braun long-term, but Tulowitzki had three years remaining on his deal, and the Brewers had five years remaining on Braun's contract at the time, meaning Zimmerman wasn't in quite the same situation. And there was extra incentive for Washington to sign Zimmerman as the franchise continues to bolster its growing credibility after many losing seasons. Colorado and Milwaukee didn't have those problems.
In Sunday's news conference, the financial value of the deal was downplayed so much that, afterward, Van Wagenen gave a joking reminder that "there is a monetary component to this deal."
If Zimmerman had completed two more healthy, productive seasons before hitting the free-agent market as otherwise scheduled, he would have been 29 and still in what most call a baseball prime. Thus, he likely would have received a little more -- though probably not drastically more -- on the open market.
Take the Rangers' third baseman, Beltre, as a comparison. Beltre is also a Gold Glove winner with power -- more power than Zimmerman and statistically slightly superior with the glove -- but Beltre hit the open market before last season with far worse rate stats (.275 career average and .328 OBP), even after his monster 2010 season in Boston. Beltre, who received a five-year, $80-million deal from Texas, hit the market with clubs knowing he'd be turning 32 in the first week of the season; Zimmerman would have hit free agency at 29 and not turning 30 until late September, effectively giving him a three-year edge.
But Zimmerman kept saying his goal was to win a World Series, and taking a little less money provides the payroll flexibility for the Nationals to lock up some of their young players or pursue free agents; $10 million of his contract is deferred as the personal services portion of the deal.
"It shows what kind of teammate and quality guy he is," Washington closer Drew Storen said. "He understands they're going to need some extra money to bring in other guys. That shows you he wants to win."
Zimmerman was willing to do so because of the situation he's in. He grew up four hours away in Virginia Beach, went to school two hours away in Charlottesville (where he starred at the University of Virginia) and said his experience in D.C. -- he reached the big leagues at the age of 20 -- was so formative it has felt like home for a while.
The Nationals now have at least 11 core players under contract through 2014: Zimmerman, Werth, Storen, starters Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, outfielder Bryce Harper, catcher Wilson Ramos, infielders Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond and reliever Tyler Clippard.
Combine that with a farm system rated No. 1 (before the four-prospect trade that landed Gonzalez from the A's), and the Nationals are trending in the right direction.
"We've got a good, young controllable team with a lot of upside players at each position," Rizzo said. "We've got a fertile farm system that we feel has the next two or three waves of players coming at different levels of the minor leagues."
One of those young players is third baseman Anthony Rendon, who was drafted No. 6 overall last year out of Rice. Rendon has been getting some spring training work at shortstop and second base in addition to third, which would increase his opportunities in the big leagues. He's insurance if injury problems persist for Zimmerman. And, of course, he could end up as excellent trade bait.
As a child of the early '80s in the mid-Atlantic, Zimmerman grew up watching Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. and admiring that the legend spent his whole career with one organization. Now, he is part of a group that, if their example is followed, could begin to restore that notion of loyalty.
Zimmerman was part of the famed 2005 draft class, whose first round is already the stuff of legends. Two of his cohorts, Tulowitzki and Braun, have become friends and, Zimmerman said, the three had all talked about wanting to stay put where they are. Now, all three will, as Tulowitzki and Braun preceded Zimmerman in signing very long-term extensions. (They are both signed through 2020 with team options for 2021.)