In the next week, Anthony Rendon will report for his first spring training. His jersey is already hanging in his locker, all in a row with others, all the way across the room from Ryan Zimmerman’s stall.
Rendon, the sixth overall pick in last year’s draft, is in major league camp not because he has a good shot to make the team – it seems most likely he’ll start at Class A Potomac – but because the Nationals gave him a major league deal out of the draft. They will play him at third base, Zimmerman’s position.
Scouts, baseball executives and prospect experts have wondered aloud if Rendon’s potential, which makes some believe he was the best player chosen last year, will force the Nationals to someday move Zimmerman across the diamond to first base.
It’s important to Zimmerman that he remains a National his whole career. How important to him is remaining a third baseman? He wants to play third as long as he’s the best candidate the Nationals have – and he doesn’t see those days ending anytime soon.
“I think I want to play third base until someone is better than me at it,” Zimmerman said. “I think there’s teams that move people. I’ve said it all along — I want to be here as long as I can. I want to play my whole career here. If that means me playing third base for five more years and then moving somewhere because someone is better than me at third and it’ll help us win, then I’ll do it. If that means me playing third base for 10 years and then going to first base or wherever, then I’ll do it. I don’t care.
“I just think as long as I can play the position and give us the best chance to win, then I think I should be there. If someone comes and they’re better than me, then they’re better than me. I’m certainly not going to make it easy for someone to come and be better than me. Someone is going to have to take it from me. It’s not going to be given to them, that’s for sure. I don’t really see myself giving that up anytime soon.”
If Zimmerman plays the rest of his career in Washington, then unless a player everyone assumes will succeed fails, he will play alongside Rendon at some point, maybe even by the end of 2013. The conflict is clear: their best player and their best prospect behind Bryce Harper play the same position.
While Nationals officials who watched Rendon at Rice believe he has Gold Glove-potential, he’ll have a difficult time surpassing Zimmerman, the 2009 Gold Glove winner at third base. Since 2007, Zimmerman has saved more runs than any third baseman in baseball other Evan Longoria, according to FanGraphs.com’s ultimate zone rating. Regardless, as Zimmerman ages, Rendon will be there.
“That’s the great thing about baseball – there’s always someone that wants to take your position,” Zimmerman said. “I’ve heard Anthony is a great player. I’m sure he wouldn’t be drafted that high and he wouldn’t be praised like he was as a collegiate player if he wasn’t. That’s our organization’s job, to take the best guy available in the draft. And Anthony was. If he comes up and plays third and plays second or whatever, then I’m going to be his best friend there. In the end, he’s going to help us win games. That’s the most important thing.”
Last year, Zimmerman took a significant and challenging step toward trying to entrench himself at third for the foreseeable future. Upon returning from his abdominal surgery last season, Zimmerman overhauled his throwing motion in order to use his legs and throw with a more over-the-top motion.
The initial results caused some unsightly, awkward throws and a gaggle of errors. Zimmerman, maybe for the first time, looked uncomfortable on a baseball field. But by the end of the season, it had paid off. Zimmerman’s throws zipped with more consistency, always on target.
“I think that was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, is work on something like that,” Zimmerman said. “You’ve played baseball your whole life. You’ve done things well in baseball your whole life. And then all of a sudden, you weren’t doing it as well you wanted to. In the middle of the season, I had to completely learn something new, pretty much. Even when I healthy and back, I was learning while playing in the big leagues, which is not a fun thing to do. You got 30-40,000 people out there watching you learn, pretty much. The last month of the season, I felt great.”
This winter when Zimmerman began throwing, he picked up his tweaked motion naturally.
“It felt great,” Zimmerman said. “I think that’s going to be a huge step for me. You’ve got to be able to attack your weaknesses. That’s what makes you a better player. For me to be able to do that last during the season and carry over to this year, I think it’s going to be great.”
And if it carries over for years to come, it could also have an impact on where Rendon plays.
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