Jordan Zimmermann is coming off arguably the best season of his career. The 2007 second-rounder out of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point posted a 3.25 ERA and an impressive 1.088 WHIP, while his 19 wins tied him for the league lead with Adam Wainwright. Zimmermann, now four years removed from Tommy John surgery, proved he could be a workhorse, throwing a staff-high 213.1 innings and 4 complete games, including his first two career complete game shutouts. At age 28, Zimmermann has firmly established himself as a top-of-the-rotation starter atop a strong Washington rotation. And as he moves closer to free agency, the question becomes: how much will it cost to keep him in Washington?
First, a couple of factors to consider; Zimmermann’s durability, and service time. While this is Zimmermann’s 5th season in the majors, it will only be his second full one — he was injured in 2009, rehabbing for most of 2010, and limited by an innings count in 2011. In fact, in his 5 seasons, Zimmermann has averaged only 139 innings a season, which has limited the strain on his arm but also limited his career counting statistics (wins, strikeouts, etc.) Additionally, over the course of his career, Zimmermann has accrued 4 years and 154 days of service time. As you may recall, Zimmermann started 2009 on the big club, so why is his service time not 5 full years? Well, in 2010, as Zimmermann was rehabbing at Triple-A Syracuse, the Nationals pulled an interesting procedural move. After Zimmermann’s 30 days of rehab (as allotted by the CBA) expired, the Nationals optioned him to Triple-A. This was a great move for the team in two respects. It allowed Zimmermann to finish his rehab at his own pace, and it also froze his service clock, meaning that when the Nationals recalled Zimmermann 26 days later, they had gained an entire year’s worth of team control.
However, Zimmermann is a Super Two player, meaning that, instead of beginning salary arbitration in his fourth year of service, he is allowed to seek an arbiter after only two years. He earned $2.3 million in his first year of arbitration, $5.35 million in his second, and is projected by Matt Swartz of MLBTradeRumors to earn $10.5 million this year, his third. Zimmermann’s salaries in arbitration are considerably higher than they would have been if he were not a Super Two, raising considerably the cost of an extension.
In order to understand the terms of Zimmermann’s extension, we must look at extensions signed by players in similar situations. The problem is, no Super Two pitcher with 3-5 seasons of service time has ever signed an extension that covered more than one year of free agency. Therefore, we must look at players that are less-than-perfect comparables. Though not a Super Two, Rangers starter Matt Harrison had accrued 4 years of service time when he signed his 5 year, $55 million extension in early 2013. Harrison was coming off a year almost that almost exactly paralleled Zimmermann’s 2013 — 213.1 IP, 18 wins, and a 3.29 ERA. But Harrison did not have nearly as strong a track record as Zimmermann; he had only compiled 2 strong major league campaigns, in 2011 and 2012, and had struggled mightily before that. Because of his record of sustained performance as well as his Super Two status, I expect Zimmermann’s extension to be pricier than that of Harrison.
Aces Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez both signed 5-year contract extensions while two years away from free agency. Both were signed before the 2010 season; Verlander, coming off a 3rd place finish in the AL Cy Young race, signed for $80 million, while Hernandez, who finished second that year, signed for $78 million. Now, Zimmermann hasn’t been nearly as good as either of these players. But neither had Super Two status, and both of these extensions were relatively team-friendly.
Zimmermann has stated that he is not looking to sign a team-friendly extension. So a deal that is fair for both sides would be something in the neighborhood of 5 years and $75 million. This would buy out 3 free agent years, Zimmermann’s age 30, 31, and 32 years, and still leave him free to pursue a long-term contract after the deal expires in 2018. This deal would provide certainty for both sides; fiscal certainty for Zimmermann and the certainty for the Nationals to know that with both Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez locked up long-term, they don’t have to worry about 2/5ths of their rotation until well into the latter part of the decade.