Nats, Zim can learn from Pujols drama

Nats, Zim can learn from Pujols drama
December 9, 2011, 1:52 pm
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Now that the dust has settled from a wild Winter Meetings in Dallas, the baseball world is starting to come to grips with the idea of Albert Pujols playing in Anaheim. It's not at all where anyone expected the game's best player to land. And it's certainly not St. Louis, where most assumed he would stay.

The lesson to be learned here, of course, is that no matter how much we want to believe iconic players will forever be attached to one franchise, this remains a business first. Players want to have the ability to choose the city where they'll be the most comfortable andor make the most money.

In Pujols' case, the comfort of Anaheim appeared to slightly outweigh the money of Miami (not that 254 million is chump change). The entire package clearly enticed Pujols more than what he would have received had he remained with the Cardinals.

Though the endgame for Pujols played out over a few frantic hours in Dallas Wednesday night, this drama had been developing over the course of two years, since the slugger and the Cardinals first began discussing a contract extension.

And if you're the Nationals or Ryan Zimmerman, you hopefully paid close attention to this all this. Because you're about to begin the very same process, albeit on a slightly lesser scale.

Zimmerman's current five-year, 45 million contract (signed in April 2009) expires after the 2013 season. That's still two years away. But the process of working out a long-term extension begins in earnest now.

And make no mistake, re-signing Zimmerman is as important as anything the Nationals' front office will attempt to do over the next two years.

Which isn't to suggest there's any immediate urgency to getting a deal done. It doesn't need to happen right now, and it certainly could wait until next winter or even spring 2013. Then again, the Cardinals probably believed they could wait until this past spring to work out a deal with Pujols. And we all saw how that turned out.

The good news for Nationals fans is that neither the club nor Zimmerman has ever suggested there's a lack of desire to keep this marriage together. When Zimmerman, a Virginia native, talks about wanting to spend his entire career in D.C., he is sincere. The only thing he's ever asked for is tangible evidence of the Nationals fielding a competitive ballclub, something they have now done.

The Nats front office, meanwhile, genuinely wants to keep Zimmerman on South Capitol Street for another decade. Want to know one of the biggest reasons why they aren't pursuing Prince Fielder this winter? Because they know there's only so many nine-figure contracts you can hand out, and they've already given one of them to Jayson Werth.

Given the choice, who would you rather give 180 million: Ryan Zimmerman or Prince Fielder? You better believe the Nationals will choose Zimmerman six days a week and twice on Sunday.

So why haven't the two sides worked anything out yet? Because it's not as simple as it sounds, especially when Zimmerman is coming off a down year in which he missed more than two months with an abdominal tear. Zim's value is down a couple of ticks, and you can't fault him for perhaps wanting to put up some better numbers in 2012 before signing the last major contract he's likely to get in his playing career.

Not that the Nationals are going to lowball Zimmerman, who as the face of the franchise for nearly seven years has done everything asked of him and has always represented the organization with class no matter what chaos was taking place around him. They're going to make him an offer as lucrative -- if not more lucrative -- than any other club would put forth if he reached free agency. You don't blow everyone else's offers for Werth out of the water and then not take care of Zimmerman.

But both sides do need to be aware of the potential pitfalls that could loom if things turned sour at any point. And for evidence of that, they need only look at the Cardinals and Pujols.

Two years ago, who could have imagined those two seemingly inseparable partners would split up, right after winning the World Series?

It's time for the Nationals and Zimmerman to start getting serious about a long-term deal. Does it absolutely have to happen this winter? No. There's no reason to believe they couldn't take care of this either during the 2012 season or even next winter.

But, as we just saw this week in Dallas, it never hurts to address these matters well before they have a chance to spiral out of control.