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Gio Gonzalez is now signed through 2016, with team options for 2017 and 2018.
In some respects, the answer is: both. The Nats have every reason to believe they can win in 2012 if all the pieces fall into place, and they're certainly doing anything to attempt not to win right now. But neither are they doing anything that might hinder their chances to win down the road in a desperate attempt to enjoy immediate success.
Yesterday's signing of Gio Gonzalez to a long-term extension was a perfect example of that strategy.
The Gonzalez deal -- five years for a guaranteed $42 million, plus a pair of one-year club options that could make the entire package worth $65 million -- ensures the left-hander is locked up through at least 2016 and perhaps through 2018. It prevents him from ever needing to go to arbitration while also buying out what would have been his first year of free agency.
All of this was done at a fairly affordable price. Exact contract terms haven't gotten out yet, but here's an educated guess: Gonzalez will probably earn $4 million this year, then $6 million in 2013, $8 million in 2014, $10 million in 2015 and $12 million in 2016. The club options are probably for $12 million in 2017 and $13 million in 2018, with a couple of $1 million buyouts included in the contract in case the Nationals elect not to pick up those option years. Add that all up and you get $42 million guaranteed over five years ($40 million in salaries, plus $2 million in potential buyouts) or as much as $65 million over seven years.
Now, that's hardly chump change. In fact, it's the third-largest contract in Nationals history (behind only Jayson Werth's $126 million deal and Ryan Zimmerman's $55 million package) and represents the largest contract ever given to a major leaguer entering his first season of arbitration-eligibility.
But it's also a reasonable deal for a pitcher who went a combined 31-21 with a 3.17 ERA and 368 strikeouts the last two seasons with the Athletics. Look, fair or unfair, baseball's arbitration system makes multi-millionaires out of players who have experienced only modest success at this level.
Or, to put it another way: If Mark Buehrle is worth $54 million over the next four years, isn't Gio Gonzalez worth $42 million over five?
These are the kinds of deals smart front offices make. It's what they've done at Tampa Bay to try to keep the nucleus of a very good, young team together for years to come, and that organization has been applauded for the approach.
Here's the single biggest key to the entire story: The Nationals now are ensured of keeping Jordan Zimmermann in their uniform through at least 2015, and Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg through at least 2016. How many other major-league clubs can say they've got their top three starting pitchers locked up for at least four more years?
And don't be surprised if the Nationals attempt to work out a similar extension with Zimmermann sometime in the next year. It's probably too soon to do it right now, considering the right-hander has pitched only one full season since undergoing Tommy John surgery. But if Zimmermann picks up in 2012 where he left off in 2011, there's no reason for the Nationals not to attempt to buy out the rest of his arbitration years and at least one or two of his free agency years.
Eventually, Mike Rizzo could try to lock up position players like Michael Morse, Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos through the rest of their arbitration years and into their free agency years, all of them at reasonable salaries. And, of course, there's always the possibility of a long-term Zimmerman extension finally coming together before his current contract expires after the 2013 season.
All of this is done with a simple goal in mind: Build a franchise that not only has a chance to win right now but will continue to have a chance to win for several more years.
Is there some risk involved in guaranteeing all this money now to players who are in no danger of being lost? Sure, there always is. Gonzalez could blow his arm out in spring training, or struggle to make the transition to the National League, and all of a sudden this club is stuck with a dead-weight contract that can't be moved.
But you'd rather see Rizzo try to lock these guys up now -- taking some calculated risks in an attempt to keep the nucleus of his franchise together for the next four or five years -- than sit back and watch them bust out, rack up even higher salaries and then depart via free agency at the first opportunity.
"Today's extension was about comfort for both parties," Rizzo said in a statement released by the club yesterday. "From our end, the two option years and team control were imperative to the extended commitment. Now both Gio and our fans can shift their focus and excitement to his debut in D.C. knowing that their relationship won't be ending in the short term."
It's possible the Nationals will be built to win in the short term. But if they don't, it's comforting to know they're taking the necessary steps to build a roster that should be able to win in the long term.