After interminable months (and months) of anything-other-than-baseball, you can almost feel the rust peeling away, the snow melting (well, what there was of it), and the sun cracking through. It helps that, in the off-season, the Nationals have traded for a top-flight hurler (Gio Gonzalez), are considering playing Bryce “the kid” Harper right out of the blocks, and signed under-the-radar innings eater Edwin Jackson for the back of the rotation.
Which is not to mention the latest, perhaps most important news: that Ryan Zimmerman will stay with the Nationals until 2020, the result of agreeing to a contract extension that will pay him $100 million over six years. The extension became a reality after days of intense negotiation. Nationals fans are ecstatic — Zimmerman is not only “the face of the franchise,” but certainly the most popular player in a Nationals’ uniform. The downside, and there is one, is that Zim has had his share of injuries, having failed to play full seasons in the last two. But even when he struggles he doesn’t really struggle: the game changes when he’s on the field, the signature quality of “a franchise player.”
Baseball’s brainiacs give this deal a thumbs-up. Over at FanGraphs (our primary source for judging these kinds of things), Dave Cameron compares Zim with a set of third basemen (who were or are) at a similar age and with a similar “skill set” — that would be Adrian Beltre, Scott Rolen (with eight gold gloves), Eric Chavez, Robin Ventura, Travis Fryman and Troy Glaus. He concludes: Zimmerman compares well in terms of raw numbers with any of them and should “earn the money over the life of the deal.” And he beats the pants off of guys like Chavez and Fryman, “the downside risks.” The key for Zimmerman (and for all of them, as Cameron points out), is (and was) to stay healthy and play longer. Then too, as Cameron notes, Zimmerman is “one of the game’s most underrated players.”
That’s a fairly laconic statement. And while it’s hard to argue with Cameron’s numbers, there are other variables. The number comparisons do not take into account the “intangible” value of a guy like Zim — Beltre (a powerhouse in Texas, but not the same since) has not aged well, Rolen (even with a great glove) was always a malcontent, Chavez has been more often injured, Travis Fryman had a short career and (likewise) Troy Glaus lasted to 33.
Comparing Zimmerman to Robin Ventura, on the other hand, makes sense. The new manager of the White Sox didn’t work the leather nearly as well as Zimmerman, but he hit for power and showed flashes of RBI brilliance. Like Zimmerman, Ventura was good enough to come to the majors with little time in the minors, and was an immediate presence in the clubhouse — which accounts, we suppose, for the Pale Hose decision to hire him as their skipper. He has a Zim-like personality: steady-as-she-goes and incredibly competent. Like Zimmerman, Ventura was drafted in the first round, wanted to stay with the team that drafted him and was regularly underrated.
And there’s this: it’s hard to think of another third baseman in the NL East who compares with Zim. Chipper Jones is scraping bone-on-bone in Atlanta, Philadelphia’s Placido Polanco can’t hit for power, David Wright remains a puzzle in New York and no one would be surprised if we wake up someday to find that Florida’s Hanley Ramirez just robbed a 7-Eleven. In truth, Zimmerman is our odds-on favorite as the National League’s premier third sacker. He could easily start the All Star game, with competition from Aramis Ramirez (new to Milwaukee), slow-around-the-sack Pablo Sandoval and running-out-of-gas Scott Rolen.
Okay, okay, okay — the National League is a little light on third basemen, Milwaukee’s Ramirez and San Francisco’s Sandoval can really hit, and when it comes to Zimmerman we’re absolute homers, but when Zimmerman is healthy he’s an elite player. He certainly was in 2009, when the Nationals were going nowhere, but Zimmerman was at the top of his game — 33 home runs, 106 RBIs, and a Gold Glove. That was the year that was, with Zim showing the power of Beltre, the glove of Rolen, the presence of Ventura. Nationals fans would love to see another year like that — or (given the life of this extension) eight of them.