Monday, March 05, 2007

Teh Lerners Are Teh Cheap! Or Are They?

It looks like the Nats are going to play it safe when it comes to Ryan Zimmerman's contract. Bill Ladson is reporting that (according to Zimmerman) the Nats are only looking to sign the rising star third baseman to a one-year deal. Nothing's official yet, but such a conservative move would be perfectly in keeping with the Lerners' strategy so far: don't spend a nickel until you absolutely must.

Zimmerman is under club control until 2009, his first arbitration year, and won't be eligible for free agency until 2012. Chris argued that the Nats might as well buy out Zimmerman's arbitration and free agency now because his price is only going to increase as his production (hopefully) continues to rise. JammingEcono argues the opposite; there is no guarantee that Zimmerman will not fall into a slump or get injured, so why not wait to spend money on him until arbitration is at hand in '09?

My gut reaction is to agree with Chris, but none of us can be absolutely sure of the team's financial picture right now. How is the team's cash flow? We don't have access to the books. The Lerners spent $450 million on the team but they don't seem to have given Stan Kasten and Jim Bowden much walking around money for contracts and free agents. What money there is seems to have been spent on the critical infrastructure aspects of THE PLAN!!!- scouts and the like, all of whom earn chump change compared to player contracts.

It only makes sense to shell out non-required prepaid salary for a player if you have the cash to do so. Chris estimates that buying Zimmerman out through 2012 would take around $18-24 million. I agree with Chris that locking Ryan up today would save the team money in the long run, but the team may not have the money now and certainly figures to have a lot more in 2008 and certainly by 2009. We just don't know because the team's finances aren't public.

I've written before that much of the Lerners' real or perceived cheapness is the result of wanting to replenish their treasure trove a bit after the huge outlay to buy the team. I'm guessing that we won't see any significant bucks spent until the 2008-2009 offseason, where the new stadium will have had a full-year of revenue-generating goodness. Tangentially, I think Stan Kasten is misleading fans into thinking that 2008 will suddenly bring the Nats into the free agency and competitiveness. The Lerners didn't get to where they are today by spending money they don't have.

So assuming-and it's a big assumption-that the team can't afford to buy Zimmerman out today, they should buy him out next offseason even if it means going out on a financial limb. The team will have had an additional year of data to justify the expense (provided Ryan continues to kick ass) but will still be able to avoid a costly and doomed arbitration battle. I might be nuts, but this kind of thinking might explain the rationale for the one-year deal that seems likely to come out of Viera this spring.

Am I on to something? Smoking crack? What do you think?