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Jordan Zimmermann should not give the Washington Nationals a hometown discount

Jordan Zimmermann is eligible to become a free agent after the 2015 season. Based on what pitchers who have performed comparably have signed for recently, he's in for a massive payday. As much as it hurts to say it, Zimmermann shouldn't pass on his chance to hit free agency.

Jordan Zimmermann will be eligible to hit the free agent market as a 29-year-old whose numbers suggest he's one of the top fifteen pitchers in baseball. It's hard to find a reason that he should pass on that opportunity.
Jordan Zimmermann will be eligible to hit the free agent market as a 29-year-old whose numbers suggest he's one of the top fifteen pitchers in baseball. It's hard to find a reason that he should pass on that opportunity.
Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

Jordan Zimmermann made his penultimate start of spring training on Friday in a 1-1 tie against the Cardinals.  Since Zimmermann has emphasized that he won't discuss an extension once the season starts, he fielded some inevitable questions after the game about whether the two sides were close.

It's hard to be too surprised by this.  Zimmermann figures to be one of the more sought-after free agents next winter.  We have to figure that his contract demands are pretty high (more on that in a bit).  Although my stance on the issue pertains more to how Jordan Zimmermann should handle this situation than the Nationals, let's start by taking a look at what the Nats have on the books and why giving in to Zimmermann's contract demands might be a bit unrealistic.

Current and future payroll

  • The Nats will enter 2015 with a $157.8 million payroll (7th in MLB).
  • The Nats have $83.4 million in guaranteed contracts on the books for 2016... for just six players (Scherzer, Gonzalez, Escobar, Harper, Werth, Zimmerman).
  • Among arbitration eligible players, we can expect that Wilson Ramos ($3.55 million in 2015), Drew Storen ($5.7 M), and Stephen Strasburg ($7.4 M) are likely to get fairly big raises this offseason.

Between those nine players, the Nats are likely looking at more than $110 million on the books for next season.  Of course, that's just 36% of a big league roster.  We're not going to focus much on the rest of the roster today.  It's safe to say that the other sixteen spots for 2016 will be filled for quite a bit less money than those nine spots I mentioned above.  I would argue that the Nats should be trying to ensure that they free up some money in their projected future payroll to try and extend some of their core young position players (namely Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon) beyond their arbitration years.  However, that's a subject for another day.

Today, we're focusing on Jordan Zimmermann.  As fans, we'd all love to see Jordan Zimmermann remain a Washington National beyond this season.  I'm sure that the organization would love to keep him in D.C. as well.  If we check out Zimmermann's three year averages, it shouldn't be too difficult to see why...

15 7.7 2.96 3.18 1.11 32 32 203 7.33 1.66 0.74 12.4 13.3

Since 2012, Zimmermann ranks sixth in ERA, eleventh in WHIP, sixteenth in FIP, and twelfth in WAR among starting pitchers.  He's not only done well in terms of ratios, but he's also been extremely durable over that stretch, making 32 starts in each of the past three seasons.  Of course the Nationals would love to keep him.  A lot of other teams would love to sign him as a free agent next offseason.  Unfortunately, It doesn't seem like the Nats will have the money available in the budget to offer him as much as some of those other teams.  There are only so many $20(+) million a year players that a roster can carry.

What should Zimmermann be looking for?  A couple of recent free agent comps

Let's take a look at the 2012-2014 statistics of a couple of players who were free agents this past offseason and see if we can figure out an estimate of what Zimmermann might make on the open market.  We'll once again include Zimmermann's numbers over that same span just so that we can look at them side by side.

Player A 14 9 3.29 3.51 1.20 33.7 33.7 228 7.89 2.24 0.90 11.6 10.1
Player B 13.3 11 3.65 3.49 1.26 32.7 32.7 213 7.94 2.58 0.85 11.7 8.3
Zimmermann 15 7.7 2.96 3.18 1.11 32 32 203 7.33 1.66 0.74 12.4 13.3

Of course, these other two pitchers pitched in the American League the past three seasons, so it's reasonable to conclude that might account for some of the ERA gap.  We're looking at two durable starters who were their teams' nominal aces.  Zimmermann's ERA, FIP, and WHIP over the past three years are significantly better than both of them.  His strikeout production is a tad lower, but comparable.  Zimmermann has a slight edge in fWAR (uses FIP) and a much larger edge in rWAR (actual runs).  He hasn't been quite the innings eater that either of these two pitchers have been, but both of them have made more starts than Zimmermann, so the difference is fairly negligible.

Pitcher A is James Shields, the former ace of the AL champion Kansas City Royals.  Shields, 33, signed a 4 year, $75 million deal with the San Diego Padres this offseason with an option for a fifth year that would push the deal to $89 million.

Pitcher B is Jon Lester, the former ace of the Boston Red Sox (and, briefly, the Oakland A's).  Lester, 31, signed a 6 year, $155 million deal with the Chicago Cubs this offseason with an option for a seventh year that would push the deal to $170 million.

Unless you're looking only at strikeouts and innings pitched, Jordan Zimmermann has been a better pitcher than either Lester or Shields over the past few seasons.  He'll also be about sixteen months younger than Lester was when he hit free agency.  Provided Zimmermann doesn't suffer an injury or have an absolutely miserable season, it's difficult to imagine him not signing a deal similar to (or better than) what Lester got this past offseason.  That's $25.83 million per season (guaranteed) over the next six years.  With the slight age difference in Zimmermann's favor, the superior production, and inflation, let's say that something like six years, $162 million ($27 per) wouldn't be that shocking.

Should Zimmermann give the Nats a hometown discount?

I guess this is the question that I set out to ask when I started this piece, so let's get down to business.  At this point, Zimmermann should not sign a below market value deal to remain in Washington.  Prior to 2013 or 2014, it might have made sense if he had....

Proximity to free agency

Deals when a player has a few years of arbitration left tend to happen because the player wants security and the team wants payroll stability.  When players are two or three years out from free agency, it can be logical for them to sign a deal that buys out a few free agent years for a little less than their (projected future) free agent value.  They're putting off a chance to cash in as a free agent later for the security of guaranteed money.  The farther away a player is from free agency, the more time there is for something to happen which can negatively affect their earning potential.  Their development can stall.  They could suffer a devastating injury (or several minor injuries) that could either threaten their career or hinder their expected performance moving forward*.

*This can, of course, happen at any time.  Yes... even when a player is two weeks from free agency.  The key here is more time.

Once they're as close to free agency as Zimmermann is, the guarantee of a contract for the next few seasons just isn't as alluring.  While a career altering injury can happen at any time, there are fewer chances remaining for it to happen before they hit free agency.  He's also established more of a track record, so even a bit of a down year shouldn't have that dramatic of an effect on his earning potential.  Those free agent dollars seem closer, so it becomes more tempting for the player to test the market than to take a little less and make sure he gets paid.

How much is enough?

Some fans become obsessive when one of the players on their favorite team hits free agency and signs elsewhere.  We all know that baseball players (professional athletes in general) make an obscene amount of money, so I won't bother to deny that they do.  By the time the 2015 season is complete, Jordan Zimmermann will have made just shy of $32.5 million in career earnings.  Over half of that ($16.5 million) will come this season.  Yes... The next several generations of Zimmermann's family should be set for life even if he never earns another penny.  That's beside the point.

Living in St. Louis, it's difficult not to use the hypothetical example that I used when the I heard the "#BFIB" crying about Albert Pujols leaving for Anaheim a few years ago.  We'll keep this simple:

  • You work for _____ (insert your job here).  You enjoy working there and live quite comfortably, never wanting for anything.
  • Another company in a similar field with a similar work environment offers you 150% of what you're making annually and guarantees that you'll have your job/be paid for almost twice as long.
  • Do you take that job?

If you answered no to the question, you're either a liar or a far better person than I am.  Yes... A five year, $100 million contract (just spitballing) would give Zimmermann way too much money to spend in a dozen lifetimes.  No... That doesn't mean that he should leave $50 million on the table in free agency.  The career of a professional athlete is a pretty short one, so he should maximize those earnings while he can.

Does Jordan Zimmermann owe the Nationals anything?

The system in baseball (all professional sports, but baseball has the longest gap from an initial signing to free agency) doesn't tend to accurately reward young players when compared to their peers who have enough service time to file for free agency.  Young players can be retained at or near the league minimum for their first three seasons before filing for arbitration.  Even after they hit their arbitration years, players still make only a percentage of what their expected free agent value would be over the next three seasons.

As I mentioned above, Zimmermann has made a touch under $16 million so far in his career (and will make $16.5 million this season).  Using Fangraphs WAR to Dollars conversion, Zimmermann has provided $85.5 million worth of value to the Nats.  He owes the Nats his best effort on the field in 2015... nothing more.

In summation

Barring a big step back, Zimmermann will hit the free agent market sixteen months younger and with a better recent track record than a pitcher who signed a six year, $155 million deal this past offseason.  The Nationals don't appear to be in the market to sign another starting pitcher to a six year, $155 million (plus) deal.  At 29 years old (in May, long before free agency), Zimmermann will likely never again have as much value on the free agent market as he will after this season.  While the fan in me wants him to be a Nat for years to come, I can't deny that he should take advantage of this chance.