Jan 9, 2014, 6:00 AM EDT
A couple of days ago, we examined Ian Desmond’s case for a long-term extension and how much the Nationals might have to pay their shortstop to keep him here for many years to come. (By the way, upon further review, I think I may have low-balled Desmond with my 7-year, $100 million proposal. I probably should have tacked on another $10 million to $20 million.)
Today, we look at the other core player who the Nationals would like to lock up with a new, lengthy contract: Jordan Zimmermann.
As was the case with Desmond, Zimmermann is two years away from becoming a free agent, which makes this winter/spring the target zone for negotiating a new deal. Players who get to within one year of free agency generally like to go ahead and test the open market.
So the time is now for the Nats and Zimmermann to get serious. Before we talk dollar figures, though, let’s talk stats.
Zimmermann’s consistency over the last three years has been remarkable. His ERA has ranged between 2.94 and 3.25. His WHIP has ranged between 1.088 and 1.170. His strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate has ranged between 6.8 and 7.0. His walks-per-nine-innings rate has ranged between 1.7 and 2.0.
Seriously, I don’t need any fancy sabermetrics algorithm to predict Zimmermann’s 2014 stats. He’s going to finish with a 3.00 ERA, a 1.1 WHIP, strike out 7 batters per nine innings and walk just under 2 batters per nine innings.
How do those numbers stack up with the rest of baseball’s top pitchers? Very well. Among all qualifying big-league starters, only Clayton Kershaw, Jered Weaver, Cliff Lee and Justin Verlander own better ERAs. Only those four plus Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, David Price and Madison Bumgarner have put fewer men on base.
The only stat Zimmermann lags behind many is his won-loss record — he’s 39-28 over those last three seasons — but anyone who has followed him closely knows what a victim of poor run support he was in 2011 an 2012.
So, it seems pretty clear Zimmermann has firmly established himself as one of baseball’s best pitchers. Which means he deserves to be paid like one.
How much money do baseball’s best pitchers make? A lot. A whole lot. There are currently 16 starting pitchers earning at least $15 million per season, seven of those earning at least $20 million per season. That’s the kind of company Zimmermann is going to want to keep.
And considering he’s still only 27 with no injury history aside from his full recovery from Tommy John surgery, he can command a whole lot of years on his next contract.
Perhaps the best comp to Zimmermann is Matt Cain, who pitched well but received no run support for several seasons before everything clicked in 2009 and his career took off. After that breakthrough season, the Giants signed Cain to a 3-year, $27.25 million deal, buying out some of his arbitration years. And then in 2012, they inked him to a 6-year, $127.5 million extension, which at the time was the largest contract ever given to a right-hander.
Cain was 27 when he signed that mega-deal.
So there’s your contract proposal for Zimmermann: 6 years and $120 million to $130 million.
That’s the kind of dough you give a No. 1 starter. Trouble is, Zimmermann isn’t the clear-cut No. 1 starter on the Nationals staff. Stephen Strasburg figures to get the ball on Opening Day for the third straight year. And Gio Gonzalez has been every bit as effective as Zimmermann over the last three seasons.
Can the Nats afford a nine-figure contract for a guy who could rank as low as third in their rotation? More importantly, does Zimmermann yearn to be treated like a true No. 1? And if so, would he be willing to go elsewhere to receive that kind of treatment?
There’s the dilemma facing Zimmermann and the Nationals as they prepare to negotiate a tremendously significant contract.
COUNTDOWN TO OPENING DAY
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As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2015 schedule (subject to change)...
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