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04/20/09 8:16 PM ET

Nats lock up Zimmerman for long haul

Young third baseman inks five-year, $45 million extension

WASHINGTON -- On Monday, Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman signed a five-year, $45 million extension, the richest contract in Nationals/Expos history.

The contract wipes out the one-year deal Zimmerman signed in February and lets him avoid dealing with the final two years of arbitration and the first two years of free agency. He could also earn more money through performance bonuses.

The deal also ends two-plus years of negotiations. Zimmerman was first approached about a contract extension in December 2006, but talks started to progress when the Nationals offered a fifth year to the contract earlier this month.

"It shows the commitment and the trust they have in me as a player and person," Zimmerman said. "The Lerner family and the rest of the group are great people. It's a great atmosphere to work in. I never had any problems with any of them. It has been a long process, but I don't think any of it has been grueling, frustrating or anything like that. It just shows what kind of people they are."

Team president Stan Kasten and Zimmerman's agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, have been working on a new deal since March 1, when Jim Bowden resigned as the club's general manager. At first it looked as though a deal wouldn't get done, because Zimmerman set a deadline of April 6. After that, he wanted to put a halt to the negotiations, saying that he didn't want to be a distraction to the team during the season, but both parties agreed to terms on that day, 20 minutes before the Nationals faced the Marlins at Dolphin Stadium.

An announcement wasn't made right away because the Nationals and Zimmerman were trying to figure out contract language in order to protect both sides, and Zimmerman needed to undergo a physical to get the deal done.

"It's great to have that sense of security -- not for me, but for my family," Zimmerman said. "They don't have to worry about anything regarding monetary value. That's more of a relief to me than being on the baseball side."

As part of his contract, Zimmerman will be donating money to The Washington Nationals Dream Foundation and host a number of events for the foundation and zIMS Foundation at Nationals Park. zIMS Foundation is dedicated to the treatment and ultimate cure of multiple sclerosis, a disease that affects Zimmerman's mother, Cheryl.

In addition, Zimmerman's role on the team will be different, as he has been asked by Kasten to be the team's leader.

"I think it's time for him to assume the role that we all knew he would go into someday -- be more of a leader in the clubhouse and on the field than he ever has before," Kasten said. "I think he is ready to do that."

Zimmerman has already showed that he will speak up if things are wrong in his eyes. Last September, it was he who told the media that teammate Elijah Dukes was wrong for making obscene gestures toward fans at Shea Stadium in New York.

That same month he told the media that the Nationals needed to spend money in order to be playoff contenders.

"If you do things wrong, I think someone should tell you," Zimmerman said. "It's the only way you learn. It's the only way you are going to get better as a team. You can't let it slip away. We have to learn from mistakes, and that's the only way you are going to get better.

"Like I said in the press conference, when you are 21 and 22 years old, it's hard to speak up when you have 30-year-old guys who have seven, eight years' experience in the big leagues. You have to get the respect of everyone and feel it out a little bit first before you start to go. I feel like I'm at that point now."

Zimmerman, who was drafted by Washington in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft, is considered by many to be the Nationals' best player. In his first full two years with the team, the 24-year-old has averaged 100.5 RBIs, but he missed 48 games last year because of a left labrum tear. The injury complicated matters in terms of the negotiations.

"It complicated the discussions because both sides were left to not only look at what he is now, but also look at what he could be over the course of not only 2009, but [looking ahead]," Van Wagenen said. "None of us have a crystal ball to know the type of player that he is, but the one thing I could say is that his contract reflects that the Nationals and Lerners not only believe in Ryan as a player today, but [what] he could be over the next five years."

Entering Monday's action against the Braves, Zimmerman was hitting .275, with two home runs and 10 RBIs.

Manager Manny Acta said that it was a great day for the Nationals to sign Zimmerman to an extension.

"For five years, we are going to have this kid here. He doesn't have to worry about arbitration and free agency," Acta said. "It's special. He deserves everything he is getting. We know you can't win with a bunch of straight-A students and Boy Scouts. You need good people in order for you to have success. This guy is special. He is a better person than a player, which is actually hard to believe. He is that good. He is a coach's dream."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.