The owner-imposed lockout has halted nearly all transactions at the big league level this off-season, with minor league free agent signings and retirements about the only non-labor related “news” that baseball-starved fans can gobble up until the lockout is ended.
One of the first, and most surprising, retirement announcements came early in the lockout from Seattle Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager, who opted not to pursue a new team in free agency but rather to spend more time with his wife and kids. A few months into the lockout Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman made a similar announcement, ending his long tenure in Washington.
There are a lot of parallels between these two players, not just statistically (although the resemblance on paper is uncanny) but in the way they were revered by their respective fanbases in Seattle and DC.
The impact Seager and Zimmerman had on their organizations is striking, and their retirement over the same offseason helps to highlight a significant similarity between the two players, one that is becoming increasingly rare in the Major League Baseball landscape: Both Zimmerman and Seager spent their entire big league careers with just one franchise.
While they are not the only 10+ year veterans who never put on a second jersey, it is certainly not as common as it used to be. Zimmerman was the second-longest tenured active player, behind Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, whose career is coming close to an end as well.
Adam Wainwright, Ryan Braun, Joey Votto, Clayton Kershaw, Brett Gardner, Buster Posey, Stephen Strasburg, and Kenley Jansen round out the top 10 — although Braun and Posey both joined Seager and Zimmerman in retirement, while Kershaw, Jansen, and Gardner are all currently free agents.
It’s no surprise that a list of veterans who stayed with one team includes multiple future Hall of Famers, which is part of what makes Seager and Zimmerman extra unique. While they were far from average as ballplayers, they also aren’t leaving behind Hall of Fame legacies either.
In today’s game, teams are constantly either in a state of frenzied competition trying to win a World Series, or cutting costs and moving talented players with the aim of “tanking” and prioritizing bottom line finances over competitive baseball. So how did two serviceable, All-Star corner infielders playing in smaller markets manage to put together lengthy careers without jumping from team to team like so many of their peers? And, how does the fact that they stayed with their respective teams change their legacy, not just within their own fanbase but amongst baseball fans and history buffs alike? And finally, should the changing landscape of baseball – notably more emphasis on player rights — alter how we view players who stay with one franchise?
How It Happened – Kyle Seager
The Mariners selected Seager in the third round of the 2009 MLB Draft out of the University of North Carolina, uprooting the North Carolina native and moving him across the country to the land of grunge music, coffee shops, and historically bad baseball.
The selection of Seager helped bail the Mariners out of what would have otherwise been a disastrous draft for the franchise. They took Dustin Ackley second overall, ahead of guys like Mike Leake, Zack Wheeler, Mike Minor, AJ Pollock, and some guy named Mike Trout. Seattle also had the 27th overall pick, which they used on infielder Nick Franklin, and a supplemental first round pick (33 overall) that resulted in catcher Steven Baron.
Ackley (7.7) Franklin (1.2) and Baron (-0.4) combined for 8.5 career bWAR, while Seager put up 36.9 in his 11-year career, which began just two seasons later in 2011.
Seager took over as Seattle’s starting third baseman in 2012, and proceeded to hit 20 or more home runs in each of the next eight seasons. The streak only ended because of the shortened 2020 campaign, where he hit nine home runs while playing in all 60 games. He returned with a vengeance in 2021, blasting a career-high 35 home runs with 101 RBI as the Mariners pushed for a playoff spot for the first time since 2001, falling just short over the final weekend.
Seager finished his career playing in just under 1,500 career games (1,480) while hitting 242 home runs with 807 RBI. He slashed .251/.321/.442 with a 112 OPS+, while making one All-Star game and winning one Gold Glove Award, both during the 2014 season.
That 2014 season is the reason Seager’s career never resulted in him wearing another uniform. On December 2 of that year, on the heels of his All-Star appearance, Seager inked a seven-year, $100 million contract extension – locking the 3B up through 2021.
The money was entirely reasonable for a player at his age (26) and coming off a 6.3 bWAR season, and indeed the young third baseman posted a 5.4 bWAR in 2015 and had his best season in 2016 when he hit 30 home runs with 99 RBI and a .278/.359/.499 slash line, good for a 133 OPS+ and a 6.7 bWAR, as well as a 12th place finish in MVP voting.
After that, however, Seager became more of a low-OBP masher, and his defense started to slip a bit. He was still a valuable player, posting a 103 OPS+ from 2017-2021, but he never hit above .250 again and his highest bWAR total was 3.6 in 2017.
While Seattle wasn’t tanking for the entire decade — contrary to popular belief — they ultimately made the decision to reset in the 2019 season. The decision is already quite clearly paying dividends, as the team came very close to sending Seager to the playoffs in 2021 and is primed to make another run in 2022 behind young up-and-coming superstars like Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez, and Logan Gilbert.
However, that resulted in the difficult decision to decline Seager’s option for the 2022 season, paving the way for younger infielders to take over key roles next year. Seager could have no doubt found himself a job for 2022, potentially uniting with his younger brother Corey in Texas, but he didn’t want to move his family and opted to call it a career at just 34 years old, going out on a high note with his 35 dingers last year.
Seager is top five in nearly every offensive category in Mariners franchise history – no easy task for a team that hosted Ken Griffey, Edgar Martinez, Ichiro Suzuki, and Alex Rodriguez for good chunks of their careers.
How It Happened – Ryan Zimmerman
While “Mr. Mariner” is a nicknamed reserved for Alvin Davis, “Mr. National” belongs to our guy Zimmerman, and for good reason. After a stellar career at the University of Virginia and on the international baseball circuit, where he hit .468 for Team USA in 2004, Zimmerman was the fourth overall pick of the 2005 MLB Draft by the Nationals — who were in the midst of their first season in DC after departing Montreal.
Zimmerman wasted no time getting to the big leagues, making his debut later that summer and appearing in 20 games as a fresh-faced 20-year-old barely three months removed from college. It certainly didn’t seem to faze the young third baseman, as he mashed .397 during that stint — with 10 doubles and a 162 OPS+.
Thus began a remarkable 16-year career in DC. Zimmerman was a two-time All-Star (2009, 2017) and a two-time Silver Slugger Award winner (2009, 2010) while also taking home a Gold Glove in 2009 and finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting in 2006.
2022 will be just the second season in franchise history that Zimmerman does not appear for Washington, as he chose to opt-out of the 2020 COVID shortened season.
Like Seager, Zimmerman was a power hitting third baseman early in his career — although he eventually transitioned to first base as his glove work began to take a hit. All told, he finished his career with stellar numbers, including 284 home runs, 1,061 RBI, a .277/.341/.475 slash line, a 116 OPS+ and a career bWAR of 40.1.
Zimmerman may not have been a starter anymore, but he still got to take home a ring for his role on the 2019 Washington team, a fantastic way to honor a lifelong National and true face of the franchise.
Zimmerman’s story is similar to Seager’s. He also signed a massive contract extension in his late twenties, inking for six-years and $100 million dollars after the 2012 season. That contract helped solidify his long-term future as a member of the Washington franchise, and is the reason he was still with the club when they won it all in 2019.
Zimmerman is first in franchise history in games, at-bats, runs, hits, doubles, total bases, home runs, RBI, extra base hits, and times on base, among others.
For most of baseball history, it was generally accepted that players would play their entire career with one team. Trades were rare in the early days of baseball, and free agency was non-existent until Curt Flood, with the help of Marvin Miller, fought for the right to negotiate new contracts with other teams in the early 1970’s. It cost Flood his career, but it helped establish the framework of free agency now used in every major sporting league in the United States.
Because of this, and because of baseball’s obsession with purity and “the good old days”, there is still a strong prevalence among fans to value ballplayers who display loyalty to the franchise that drafted them. Of course, that loyalty needs to go both ways for the relationship to remain harmonious — a fact that is often lost on fans. Seager and Zimmerman go down as lifers with their respective franchises, which no doubt appeases their fans, but both were able to do so because the franchise inked them to seven-figure contracts at an age where they could comfortably retire at the end of the deal.
Not that it’s a bad thing, of course. Seager and Zimmerman both clearly deserved the contracts they received, and while it made them difficult/impossible to trade in the final few years of their contracts — players getting paid a lot of money by owners who can clearly afford it is not a bad thing. MLB doesn’t have a salary cap — for now — so Seager and Zimmerman earning $100 million of some billionaire’s money, while they create lifelong memories for generations of baseball fans in their region of the country, is something that should be celebrated by all.
Indeed, players who start and finish their career with the same team are often more memorable in the annals of baseball history, a fact that is reflected in how players are treated in Hall of Fame balloting. No one would reasonably argue that Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken, or Barry Larkin aren’t Hall of Fame caliber players, and indeed they all sailed through with relative ease in the past few decades.
But the same cannot be said for many other deserving candidates. Two notable examples who are not enshrined in Cooperstown, despite Hall of Fame worthy numbers, are Gary Sheffield and Kenny Lofton.
Quick: Name the first team that comes to mind when you think of Sheffield.
Some of you probably thought of Milwaukee, some Atlanta, some maybe the Yankees. I thought of the Detroit Tigers, but that’s because I’m a Tigers fan and enjoyed watching his past-his-prime swing in the Motor City back when I was a teenager.
While the perception that he was a steroid user is the primary reason he has yet to receive enough support from the BBWAA, his lack of team identity is almost certainly an underlying factor as well.
Lofton compares very closely to Gwynn, in terms of career bWAR and times on base, but he spent the second half of his career bouncing around multiple teams. That bouncing around happened almost exclusively through midseason trades, as teams wanted to acquire a high-OBP speedster for their postseason run. Is it Lofton’s fault his skillset was desirable enough to constantly be a commodity on the trade market? Hell no. But it likely impacted how he was perceived by baseball fans and the BBWAA, leading to him falling off the ballot after just one season.
This is certainly not a hard-and-fast rule, as players like Todd Helton and Lou Whitaker struggle to get Hall of Fame support despite only playing for one team, while journeymen like Roberto Alomar and Harold Baines (dubiously) are enshrined in Cooperstown.
However, it is a perception that has persisted among most fans and followers of the sport, despite the general narrative shifting toward more player autonomy and less blind support of ownership and lining their pockets with profits.
Ultimately, there is something to be said for a guy who can spend 10-to-15 (or more) years wearing the same uniform. Anyone who does that will build a legacy that will almost certainly carry for a long time, longer than a similarly productive player might be remembered who bounced around.
With absolutely no disrespect to Chili Davis, Bill Madlock, or Moises Alou, I suspect Seager and Zimmerman will be remembered in Seattle and DC more than any of those three players will be remembered 10, 15, 20 years from now, despite all five players having very very similar career WAR totals.
However — the subconscious devaluing of players because they change teams is something that fans should (in my opinion) try to acknowledge and move away from. I’m not in the business of telling people how to be a fan, but it’s worth reiterating that Seager and Zimmerman were only able to spend their whole career where they did because of big contract extensions given to them in the middle of their careers.
Seattle or Washington could easily have made the choice to trade, or not re-sign, either of these players during their careers — and if they had it shouldn’t impact the way we view them when looking through the lens of baseball history.
Photos by Adam Davis/Icon Sportswire & Ryan Zimmerman– All-Pro Reels Photography| Adapted by Michael Packard (@artbyMikeP on Twitter & IG)