The Nationals continued to lock up their core talent today, agreeing to terms on a six year, $100 million extension for third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. The extension is tacked on to the end of his current deal, which pays him $26 million over the next two seasons, so he’s essentially now under contract for the next eight years for $126 million, and if a team option is exercised for 2020, the deal could turn out to be $150 million over nine years.
That’s a big paycheck, but Zimmerman is one of the game’s most underrated players, and the Nationals correctly identified his skillset as one worth keeping around. However, there’s continuing skepticism around every player who generates a lot of value with his glove, and people continue to be uncomfortable projecting stardom for guys who rely on their defensive skills to sustain elite performance. Since Zimmerman is a good bat/great glove guy, not everyone is on board with committing $100 million to that skillset, thinking that the value may not be there if the defensive value degrades with age and injury.
So, I figured it’d be instructive to look at how some other players with this skillset have aged recently. Here’s my list of comps, and their performance through age 26 – for reference, Zimmerman’s at a 119 wRC+, +52 FLD, and +30.2 WAR in 3,669 PA, or more generalized, 4.9 WAR per 600 PA.
These guys were all regarded as good glove guys, even if the defensive metrics don’t agree in retrospect on guys like Fryman and Glaus, and they all were all above average – but not elite – offensive performers. Overall, they averaged 3,505 PA and had a weighted average line of 115 wRC+, +40 FLD, and +24.6 WAR – just slightly worse than Zimmerman’s overall line, but I think these half dozen guys represent the most similar players to Zimmerman’s current skillset that we’ve seen in the last 15-20 years. Zimmerman might be slightly better than the aggregate of these comps, but it’s pretty close.
So, how’d those guys do from ages 29-34, which is the years that the Nationals just bought out with this six year extension? Let’s go back to the comps.
Or, if you prefer a visual, here’s the WAR graph by age for those same six players.
Of the comps, there’s a pretty clear delineation between the positive and negative results. Scott Rolen, Robin Ventura, Adrian Beltre (to this point – we’re just judging on him 29-32 since his 33-34 seasons are TBD), and Troy Glaus all sustained their skillsets, producing at basically the same level they did up through age 26. Glaus struggled with injury issues and his career ended prematurely, but he was productive when he played.
Fryman and Chavez are the downside risks here. Fryman’s bat regressed and his defensive performance tanked, so he went from +3.7 WAR per 600 PA to +1.7 WAR per 600 PA, and only had one useful year after he turned 30. Chavez has battled major injury problems and has rarely played since turning 30, and has been a complete non-factor over the last five years.
Still, the overall production of the comparable list should be somewhat encouraging for the Nationals. The six guys had a weighted average of +4.2 WAR per 600 PA through age 26, then posted a +3.9 WAR per 600 PA from 29-34. There isn’t a lot of evidence here that Zimmerman’s skills are going to erode and he’ll lose his defensive value unless he just battles major health problems, which is a risk no matter what player type you sign long term.
If we use the standard $5M per win in 2012/5% annual inflation assumptions, the Nationals would essentially need Zimmerman to produce +16 WAR from 2014-2019 in order to justify this contract. The median production of the six comps from age 29-34? +16 WAR.
There’s certainly risk here, especially given Zimmerman’s injury problems in 2011. Health is likely to be the determining factor of how this deal turns out, and his ability to stay on the field is more of a question now than it was a year ago. However, given his production up to this point and how other similar players have aged recently, the Nationals should expect Zimmerman to be able to live up to the extension. It’s not a huge bargain, but locking up quality players to fair market value deals has some value when you already have some premium talents under contract at bargain rates.
Bottom line – the Nationals paid a pretty fair price for a good player who should be able to help them contend while guys like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper are coming into the primes. This isn’t the kind of deal that will save the team a lot of money, but it keeps a quality player in the fold at a rate that isn’t likely to be a total disaster. There’s risk with any long term extension, and this one could turn out poorly if Zimmerman’s injury issues linger, but this is a valuable skillset and a healthy Zimmerman should earn the money over the life of the deal.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.