Nationals Make Their Move as Ryan Zimmerman Makes His

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Nationals Make Their Move as Ryan Zimmerman Makes His
Alex Brandon/AP Images

Ryan Zimmerman did not show up this spring planning to vacate third base. Did you start the year expecting to give up the job you love? Volunteer to move to a new cubicle? Wistfully admit you're just not the same?

Things change. Days pass. They become years.

If you're lucky, you find the ability to adapt with the times and continue to thrive.

"The last couple years have been tough," Zimmerman was telling me the other day. "But I've always been honest with myself.

"People who can’t be honest with themselves, it's going to be tougher for them to give things up."

After 1,119 games and one Gold Glove (2009) at third base, Zimmerman borrowed teammate Jayson Werth's glove and moved out to left field last Tuesday.

And the Nationals, now in prime position to make a move in the NL East, are better for it.

"What's been wrong with the Nationals?" you ask.

Well, for starters, Zimmerman missed two months with a fractured right thumb, and outfielder Bryce Harper, catcher Wilson Ramos, first baseman Adam LaRoche and starting pitchers Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez all missed significant time in the season's first two months. New skipper Matt Williams mostly was managing with roughly half of his lineup gone.

All but Gonzalez, who is on an injury rehab assignment, and Harper are back now. The lineup is much stronger, evidenced by the Nationals' 8-2 run over the past several days. The rotation is much stronger, evidenced by Fister's 5-1 record and 2.68 ERA over seven starts since joining the rotation May 9.

And, impossible as it would have been to believe just a couple of years ago, the defense is much stronger with Anthony Rendon, 24, at third base instead of Zimmerman.

"I look at the way Anthony's playing third base," Zimmerman says. "He's obviously a great young player who's going to be in this league for a long time. And, honestly, I think he's playing a better third base than I play right now. This helps us right now."

Before the Nationals invented Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, they designed Zimmerman. He was the young cornerstone player of the franchise. A first-round pick (fourth overall) in 2005 out of the University of Virginia, Zimmerman joined the Nats when they stunk, and together they dreamed of better days.

He was as automatic as an ATM back then, both in terms of being in the lineup every day and in making every play at third. In 2006, he played in 157 games. In '07, he played in all 162.

Ryan Zimmerman career stats
Year G R HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS
2005 20 6 0 6 0.397 0.419 0.569 0.988
2006 157 84 20 110 0.287 0.351 0.471 0.822
2007 162 99 24 91 0.266 0.330 0.458 0.788
2008 106 51 14 51 0.283 0.333 0.442 0.774
2009 157 110 33 106 0.292 0.364 0.525 0.888
2010 142 85 25 85 0.307 0.388 0.510 0.899
2011 101 52 12 49 0.289 0.355 0.443 0.798
2012 145 93 25 95 0.282 0.346 0.478 0.824
2013 147 84 26 79 0.275 0.344 0.465 0.809
2014 19 9 2 10 0.275 0.338 0.464 0.801

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

But an abdominal strain kept him to 101 games in '11; then came the sore right shoulder in '12. He underwent arthroscopic surgery after the season. After committing 19 errors in 145 games in 2012, he committed 21 in 147 last year.

Watching him throw suddenly became a hold-your-breath experience. Was it his shoulder? Was it the yips?

"Maybe they both kind of coincided with each other. I don't know," Zimmerman says. "If I knew, then I wouldn't have it.

"I think it was a combination of maybe trying to play a little banged up and then creating some bad habits. And then maybe having the surgery and not getting away from those bad habits while trying to get back to the form I used to be in.

"So many things going on at the same time. You can call it whatever you want to call it. At the end of the day it happened and you try and learn from it and move on."

So here he is in left field, which, with Harper out until July with a thumb injury, is perfect. It is a place that allows the Nationals to insert Zimmerman's bat back into the lineup without the potential train wreck of misfired throws or another injury at third base.

Coach Tony Tarasco hits him fly ball after fly ball in the afternoons. And then, if all goes right, Zimmerman (.275, .338 on-base percentage, two homers and 10 RBI in 19 games) hits line drive after line drive in the evenings.

What is Williams' fair expectation from Zimmerman in left?

"My fair expectation is that he needs to hit in the middle of our lineup," the skipper quips. "And catch what he can catch."

Williams says we will see Zimmerman again at third base at some point. And the Nationals are only about a month or so away from a major decision regarding that: When Harper returns, the Nationals will have a Dodgers-like math problem, four outfielders for three positions. Werth is in right, Denard Span in center and Zimmerman in left.

Will Harper's return push Zimmerman back to third, Rendon, the Nats' first-round (sixth overall) pick in '11, over to second base and Danny Espinosa out of the lineup?

Rendon is making all the plays while hitting .272 with nine homers and 34 RBI. Espinosa is hitting .226 with six homers and 17 RBI...and key stat: 72 strikeouts, ranking fifth in the NL. So that's an option.

Another: Harper's return could push Span to the bench (or to the trade market) while the Nats keep Rendon at third, Zimmerman in left and Werth in right.

USA TODAY Sports

But Span's 24 extra-base hits currently lead all big league leadoff men.

Zimmerman is 29 and playing under a six-year, $100 million deal that takes him through 2019. He has a blanket no-trade clause that kicked in this year. He has seen the Nationals at their worst (59-103 in '09) and at their best (98-64 in '12).

He would like to see October again.

"The more I play out there, the more comfortable I get," he says. "And it's fun. It's fun again.

"It hasn't been as tough as third has been the last few years, making so many errors. Nobody wants to hurt the team like that."

Least of all Zimmerman, who looked straight into the mirror and was stone-cold honest with himself.

It's something all of us should do, but so many of us wind up choosing another option instead.

"He wants to do what he can to help the team win," says Williams, whose Nationals again are on the move, 8-2, since their Z-man returned. "That’s a fantastic trait to have."

 

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball here.

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