Let me first start with why the Nats should entertain the idea of moving Zimmerman in general. One note: I'm not screaming TRADE ZIMMERMAN, as he is an immensely valuable player...simply stating that his value to the Nats may be at his highest now.
1) Zimmerman is relatively expensive now ($12 mil in 2012, $14 mil in 2013) and will be a free agent after the 2013 season. Adam Kilgore in August spitballed the idea of an 8 year, $175 million deal for Zim ($21.875 mil/year); an extension could end up lower than that, but we're still talking about a major, MAJOR investment. McCutchen, on the other hand, is under team control through 2015, still one season away from arbitration. MLB Trade Rumors suggests that the Justin Upton 6 year, $51.75 mil contract could be a model for a McCutchen extension, but even a 6 year, $60 million deal would be a bargain.
2) Zimmerman's injury history, while perhaps overstated, still exists. He played in only 106 games in 2008 due to a small tear in his left shoulder, couldn't finish the last 10 days 2010 season because of a rib sprain and missed significant time in 2011 due to abdominal injuries. I'm much more worried about Rendon's injury history than Zimmerman's, but it's still at least a minor point of concern. Besides missing a few games due to a bum hand from being hit by pitch, McCutchen hasn't been significantly injured in his 2 years of MLB service
3) Zimmerman is an elite 3B, but 3B's are a lot easier to come by than CF's. The Nats have Rendon in the system behind him already (top prospects aren't slam dunks, but Rendon >>> anything the Nats have in CF). It's basically impossible to find an elite CF, which makes an already above-average CF like McCutchen so valuable.
On July 18, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs listed Zimmerman as the player with the tenth greatest trade value. His write-up:
Zimmerman is one of the game’s best players, but also one of the game’s best kept secrets. He is consistently ignored in things like All-Star placement and MVP voting despite the fact that he’s one of the best players in baseball. Because he’s not a premier power guy or an up-the-middle player and his value is largely tied to his defensive excellence, his excellence gets lost in the crowd, but it shouldn’t. He’s awesome. At $26 million over the next two years, he’s also one of the cheapest elite players in baseball, though the lack a true long term deal drags him down a bit. Still, his present value is sky high, and offsets most of the lack of value beyond 2013.McCutchen came in at number six on Cameron's list:
Already a terrific all-around player, McCutchen has added power this year and made himself into a legitimate MVP candidate at age 24. His broad base of skills suggests that he’ll age extremely well, there’s no injury history to worry about, and the Pirates control his rights for four more years after this one. They haven’t yet locked him up to a long term deal, but even if he goes through the arbitration process, he’ll still be a tremendous bargain. If you want to start handing out praise for why baseball is relevant in Pittsburgh again, start with McCutchen.
There are many factors that can't be measured objectively, such as Zimmerman's local ties (grew up in the Tidewater area and went to UVA) or his charity work with the ziMS Foundation, but from a strictly baseball-oriented point of view, I think the Nats would be foolish to not make a trade like this if it were ever on the table.
This all being said, the Pirates probably aren't really shopping McCutchen and despite his 2011 awfulness, Pedro Alvarez is still a solid prospect at 3B for them. But who knows.
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