Though Ryan Zimmerman was given his Nationals’ corner office with its “Face of the Franchise” title more than four seasons ago, it has remained vacant, waiting for the young man from Virginia Beach to grow into it.
After two seasons of making fans wonder if he was a good—but not a great—player, Zimmerman had his breakout year in 2009, hitting .292-33-106 while garnering both the Silver Slugger and Golden Glove Award for third baseman.
It’s hard to picture the Nationals without Zimmerman at third base. He has, after all, been there for all but five months of the team’s five-year existence. It would seem that fate, kismet, and a peppering of providence brought him to Washington.
But that’s not true. Were it not for the needs—and the bad luck—of the Kansas City Royals in 2005, Zimmerman would have ended up somewhere else, and the Nationals would probably still be looking for “the face.”
As draft day approached, there was little doubt that the Arizona Diamondbacks would select Justin Upton—by far the top prospect in the draft—with their overall No. 1 choice. They had considered selecting pitcher’s Mike Pelfrey and Luke Hochevar, but Upton’s combination of speed and power was just too hard to ignore.
The Royals had the second selection and were in need of a third baseman.
Over the six previous seasons, Joe Randa had been Kansas City’s third baseman, averaging .289-15-89 over that time. But the Royals allowed him to leave via free agency after the 2004 season and went with rookie Mark Teahen in 2005. By the time of the draft, Teahen was hitting just .245 and didn’t seem to be the team’s long-term answer at the hot corner.
After Upton, University of Nebraska third baseman Alex Gordon was considered the class of the draft.
The Lincoln native was a two-time Gatorade Nebraska High School Player of the Year after combining to hit .483-25-112 over his last two years in high school. He was also a member of the U.S. National Team and was named the top offensive player at the World University Games in Taiwan in 2004.
In his three years in college, Gordon won 19 individual awards including the 2005 Baseball America Player of the Year, the Dick Howser trophy and the Golden Spikes Award for being the best player in all of college baseball.
Gordon was considered the second-best player in the 2005 draft, the best “pure” college hitter, the second-best “five tool” player and power hitter and was said to be the second closest player in the draft to being major league ready.
In a 680 at-bat career at Nebraska, Gordon batted .353-44-189 with a .657 slugging percentage.
Choosing Gordon was a no-brainer for Kansas City. He was polished and mature enough that most baseball insiders believed that he would make it to Kansas City that September and would be the Royals’ third baseman for a decade.
But Gordon didn’t sign until late September and his first taste of professional baseball was the Arizona Fall League the following month. He played the entire 2006 season with the Royals’ Double-A affiliate in Wichita and was every bit as good as expected, batting .325-29-101 in just 130 games.
But things didn’t go well in Kansas City. In his three seasons with the Royals—interspersed with a trip back to the minors last season—Gordon has a 162-game average of just .250-18-68 with 150 strikeouts. Defensively, things have gone so bad that team officials are considering moving him to first base.
His managers think Gordon is trying too hard. Former skipper Buddy Bell and current manager Trey Hillman use words like “tight” and “tense” and “wound up” to describe Gordon at the plate.
Said former third baseman and current batting coach Kevin Seitzer, "His biggest problem is that he cares so much and tries so hard and works so hard. From an offensive standpoint, you have to have loose, tension-free rhythm. He has to let his hands work, he’s got to release that tension. He’s got to just hold the bat, not squeeze it."
Whatever the reason, Gordon is not living up to expectations. He can become that player the Royals envisioned in the summer of 2005, but not every “can’t miss” prospect makes it.
The Royals are publicly still very satisfied with their choice, but what if they had gone in another direction? What if Teahen’s first year with Kansas City was as good as his last three? The Royals might have chosen someone else.
The Seattle Mariners picked third and though they had talked about selecting Long Beach State’s Troy Tuliwitzki with their selection, they ultimately chose catcher Jeff Clement of Southern California. The Mariners had just signed Adrian Beltre to a $60 million contract the previous winter, so they weren’t in need of a third baseman.
If the Royals had not taken Gordon with their pick, he would have been available when the Washington Nationals made their selection with the fourth pick in the draft, and former General Manager Jim Bowden would have been eviscerated by fans if he bypassed the college player of the year for Zimmerman.
So let’s be clear, with Gordon still on the board, he—and not Zimmerman—would be the Nationals’ third baseman.
After a slow collegiate start (.308-0-36 in 2003), Zimmerman had solid sophomore and junior years and ended his career with a .351 batting average, seven home runs, and 140 RBI. For his career, Zimmerman was .351-7-140 at Virginia with an above average .470 slugging mark.
But in 24 fewer collegiate at-bats, Gordon batted two points higher, hit 37 more home runs and drove in 49 more RBI. His slugging percent was 187 points higher.
No, Gordon’s glove wasn’t as good, but it was certainly good enough, and scouts said that he would be a “plus” fielder by the time he reached the major leagues.
Baseball scouts believed that Gordon would become an elite slugger also capable of hitting for a high average. When asked specifically about the kind of stats Gordon could produce, a National League scout said simply, “Albert Pujols.”
Zimmerman, on the other hand, was not considered a star-in-making. After drafting Zimmerman, Bowden said, “His defense is Gold Glove quality today. Offensively, he has the talent to bat .300, hit 20 to 25 homers and drive in close to 100 runs year in and year out.”
Obviously, no one saw Zimmerman as a power hitter. He would bring outstanding defense along with good—but not great—offensive production. He would be best, they thought, batting fifth in the lineup behind two other powerful bats.
So if the Royals had gone for a pitcher, if their long-time third baseman was just a few years younger, Gordon would have passed to the Seattle Mariners. But with $64 million invested in Adrian Beltre, he would have ended up in the lap of the Washington Nationals.
No one in their right mind would have selected Ryan Zimmerman over Alex Gordon five years ago, and the Nationals were—pretty much—in their right minds back then. They would have taken Gordon, and the Milwaukee Brewers, also in need of a third baseman, would have taken Zimmerman instead of Ryan Braun.
Through all the difficulties that the Nationals have faced over the preceding years, there has at least been the constant of Ryan Zimmerman. The team was always able to answer any argument over the team’s future by saying, “Well, yeah, but we have Ryan Zimmerman.”
Washington baseball without Ryan Zimmerman is impossible to contemplate. When the selection was made, most thought the Nationals were getting the second-best third baseman in the draft.
What they ended up getting was someone the team could be built around, someone who has repeatedly placed his team and teammates over money, status, and glory.
I hope Alex Gordon succeeds, but no matter how good he may become, he'll never escape Ryan Zimmerman's shadow.