March 30, 2023 at 4:06 a.m. EDT
Lockers are lockers, no more than wood and metal and whatever fills the space. They hold shoes, jerseys, baseballs, cellphones. They often smell like a sweet mix of leather and sweat.
But in the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse, there’s one locker — end of the room, tucked behind some couches and a bank of TVs — with a shiny plaque above it. Ryan Zimmerman used to sit there, stand there, think there late at night. And as of this week, Keibert Ruiz, a shy catcher from Valencia, Venezuela, will do the same.
“That’s pretty cool, right?” Ruiz said Tuesday, of taking — no, earning — Zimmerman’s old stall. Ruiz was in the dugout before an exhibition with the New York Yankees, slowly strapping on his red shin guards. He was alone, no teammates around, nothing aside from his gear and the field he could play on for the next 10 years before him. He smiled at a casual question about Zimmerman and the weight of franchise history. He looked at home.
Earlier in March, Ruiz signed an eight-year, $50 million extension with two club options on the back end. It was the first time Washington extended a player before he was arbitration eligible, and General Manager Mike Rizzo called the deal a risk for both sides.
For the team, the risk is Ruiz may not grow into a cornerstone catcher. In 2022, his first full season in the majors, he was solid behind the plate but slightly below average in the box. He has yet to hit for much power, something the club believes will change this season. His swing decisions also left more questions than answers.
For Ruiz, the risk is twofold: He could have stunted his earning potential by opting for stability and the guarantee of life-changing money. And depending on how the Nationals’ rebuild unfolds, he could get stuck as a good player on an annually underachieving club.
“I’m not thinking a ton about what happens long term,” said Ruiz, who finished last season with a .251 batting average, .313 on-base percentage and .360 slugging percentage. “Not yet, you know? For me it’s always … next at-bat, next pitch, next game. But yeah, if I can help other guys feel good about signing deals, too, I’d love that. There are a lot of young players in there who I want to be with for a while. We could do something here.”
Three weeks into spring training, Ruiz was at this locker in West Palm Beach, Fla., talking on the phone when Mike DeBartolo, one of Rizzo’s assistant GMs, handed him an envelope. Inside was the Nationals’ first offer: Eight years and $44 million with club options. Ruiz called his parents, who were so excited they told him to take it on the spot. But when he called his agents, they told him to sit tight. There was still negotiating to do.
At the start of camp, Ruiz left Scott Boras and switched to Octagon, the agency that represented him when he first arrived in Washington in the package for Trea Turner and Max Scherzer in 2021. The Nationals did not begin extension talks until Ruiz left Boras, according to two people familiar with the matter. Luis García, the club’s 22-year-old second baseman, made the same switch after Ruiz and has since returned to Boras, according to a person familiar with García’s situation.
The belief is that Boras, the sport’s most powerful agent, is generally opposed to pre-free agency extensions because he feels they short his players. In 2019, Boras called Ronald Acuña Jr.’s eight-year, $100 million extension with the Atlanta Braves a “snuff contract” in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. But once Ruiz’s Octagon agents mentioned a possible long-term contract, he liked the idea of committing to the Nationals, who view him as a critical building block.
“Someone has to go first,” said Josiah Gray, the top pitching prospect who accompanied Ruiz in that return from the Dodgers. “Him getting that deal done, he could really help the next guy who is approached by the team. One of us could go to him and say: ‘How did the discussions go? What were you thinking? What surprised you?’ There’s comfort in seeing a great player like Keibert take that leap.”
The breakdown of Ruiz’s contract, according to three people who know the terms: a $3 million signing bonus, $1 million for 2023, $6 million for 2024, $5 million for 2025, 2026 and 2027, $7 million for 2028 and $9 million for 2029 and 2030. The first club option is for $12 million, the second for $14 million.
Had Ruiz not signed an early extension, he would have made around the major league minimum ($740,000) for the next two seasons, then been arbitration eligible for the next three, then hit the open market. By inking this deal, he will make a total of $15 million in what would have been his three arbitration years — and a total of $25 million in what could have been his first three years of free agency.
Here, then, are the benefits and risks for Ruiz: J.T. Realmuto, the game’s consensus best catcher, made $2.9 million, $5.9 million and $10 million in his three arbitration years, totaling $18.8 million. Ruiz, not quite on Realmuto’s track, is netting $7 million before arbitration — plus a $3 million signing bonus — then $3.8 million less than Realmuto’s earnings in his arbitration years. But if Ruiz turns into a premier catcher, the Nationals could have him for five seasons beyond the typical six of team control, leaving him off the market until he’s 34 and probably on the decline.
Yes, he will get paid well in that stretch. He just may not make as much as he could have by betting on himself.
“It’s almost as if these deals make sense if you do them early enough,” said a member of a National League front office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to publicly discuss other clubs. “The team gives up some on the front end; the player maybe gives up some on the back end. Everybody wins while gritting their teeth a bit.”
The structure of Ruiz’s deal mirrors the Nationals’ short- and long-term ambitions. With an eight-year, $50 million contract, the average annual value of $6.25 million is what counts toward the competitive balance tax threshold. But since the Nationals are way, way below the threshold — and expect to be for at least the next two years — the number is irrelevant now and could be advantageous later. If, say, Ruiz does become a top-tier catcher, the team will have its franchise backstop locked down, allowing it to spend even more on other positions. That’s how the deal becomes a team-friendly coup.
And that, of course, all hinges on the rebuild. There’s no guarantee, as Ruiz knew when he signed on for the life of it. There’s only faint signs of promise and hope.
“When they come to you with an extension offer, there is a bit of: ‘What am I missing here? What’s the angle?’ ” said reliever Sean Doolittle, who once signed a five-year deal with the Oakland Athletics before reaching arbitration. “But with Keibert, there was a player at an important position and a team that wanted to make a big commitment. And he’s the type of guy other players will follow.”