Ryan Zimmerman will stay at third base this year, and he should stay next year, too

brushback_harperUsing old-fashioned stats, advanced metrics or simply your eyes, Ryan Zimmerman has had a rough year at third base. This is no secret, of course. He ranks 17th in defensive runs saved and last in UZR among big league third basemen. He has made 19 errors, 14 of them on throws. In the wake of offseason shoulder surgery, his throwing motion has vacillated between serviceable and painful to watch. Sunday afternoon, he forgot to cover third base in a crucial situation.

Zimmerman’s season has led to discussion about the possibility of a move across the diamond to first base. If it happens, the experiment will not begin this year. The Nationals have no plans to play Zimmerman at first base at the end of this season.

The Nationals still believe is in the final stages of recovering from the shoulder surgery that repaired an inflamed AC joint and fraying in both his rotator cuff and labrum. Manager Davey Johnson said Zimmerman played much of this season in “no-man land,” essentially even with the base. The positioning made the throw to first shorter, but it also cut down on his range.

Since the middle of this month, Johnson said, Zimmerman has been playing a step or two further back at third base in order to give himself more range, a sign of increased confidence in his arm strength. Since the all-star break, Zimmerman has made five errors in 32 games.

Moving Zimmerman to first base next year, if the Nationals wanted to, would prove complicated. First of all, Zimmerman would lose a lot of value as an offensive player. At third, he’s in the top tier of hitters at his position. At first, he would be a little above average. His six-year, $100 million extension starts this offseason. He may still be worthy of it if he can revive his value at third. At first base, he would have to become a different caliber of hitter, something that doesn’t seem plausible at this stage of his career.

And that’s just a look at Zimmerman in vacuum. The Nationals already have a first baseman, Adam LaRoche, under contract for $12 million for the 2014 season. In his age-33 season, LaRoche has essentially been a replacement-level player. Because of a sudden crash in both offense (.238/.325/.417) and defense that earned him a Gold Glove last year, LaRoche’s WAR is 0.5 per Baseball-Reference and 0.4 per FanGraphs. He is not a player other teams are going to be lining up to trade for.

The Nationals could eat his contract, but with their payroll certain to go up as so much of their core advances in arbitration, it seems more prudent to hold on to LaRoche and hope he bounces back. He did finish sixth in NL MVP voting just last year.

Even if the Nationals could move LaRoche, it would not provide a clean solution to their infield problem. They would move Anthony Rendon to third base, and Rendon has made 15 errors in 78 games as a rookie. Most of those errors have come after the Nationals wedged him into second base, which he last played with any consistency in Little League. With an offseason and spring training to mature and focus on one spot, Rendon would surely improve. But Rendon at this point is not obvious, immediate defensive upgrade.

The Nationals would also then face a hole at second base. Danny Espinosa is still searching in the minors, possibly due to a shoulder injury both he and the team insist is not the problem. The Nationals already passed over Steve Lombardozzi for Rendon this season, though Lombardozzi has played better in the second half. Would they throw money at the problem in free agency? Roll the dice that Espinosa can put himself back together again at that plate, at least enough to get his glove back in the majors? Again, no clean solution.

If the Nationals even considered shifting Zimmerman across the diamond in 2014, they would realize they’re kind of backed into a corner. This does not even consider the intangible implications of shifting a franchise player to a new position in what should be the prime of his career, in the season his huge contract extension kicks in.

For many reasons, trying to upgrade the Nationals’ infield with sweeping change may seem attractive. But standing pat is simpler and probably more sensible. At 28, Zimmerman still has age on his side for a couple more seasons.

Zimmerman attempted a major change to his throwing motion for the third straight season on the fly. He could not throw across the diamond this year until midway through spring training – the surgery he had in November is still causing a ripple effect. He is such a gifted natural defensive player that, even after several maddening seasons, the combination of returning arm strength and an entire winter of throwing may correct, or at least diminish, the problem.

Counting on Zimmerman at third in 2014 carries risk. But so does moving him to first. It would be more sound for the Nationals to bet on Zimmerman, at least for one more season, than making all the other moves it would require to bet against him.

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NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Syracuse 15, Rochester 5: Danny Espinosa went 3 for 6 with no strikeouts. Corey Brown went 1 for 3 with a home run and three walks. Jeff Kobernus went 2 for 5 wth a double and a walk and is hitting .324. Ryan Mattheus allowed no runs in one inning on one hit, striking out one.

Harrisburg 12, Altoona 5: Brian Goodwin went 3 for 4 with two doubles, a triple and a walk. Billy Burns went 3 for 4 with a double and a walk. In 23 games at Harrisburg, Burns, 23, is hitting .330/.438/.364 with 11 steals. Between Potomac and Harrisburg this year, he has a .422 on-base percentage and 62 steals – he might be the fastest player in the Nats’ system. Justin Bloxom went 3 for 5.

Potomac 2, Wilmington 0: Paul Demny allowed no runs in six innings on four hits and a walk, striking out four. Brandon Miller went 1 for 3.

Hagerstown was off.

Auburn was postponed.

The Nationals’ GCL affiliate set a GCL record with its 48th win, improving to a ridiculous 48-9. Randy Encarnacion went 2 for 4 with a double to raise his batting average to .349.

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