Something is happening here. Saturday afternoon, for the second straight day, Ryan Zimmerman wore an outfielder’s glove, stationed himself in left field during batting practice and performed drills like an outfielder. The Nationals are still not sure when Zimmerman will return from his broken thumb. It certainly appears there is a more intriguing question: What position will Zimmerman play when he does?
The Nationals are not saying anything publicly about a potential position change for Zimmerman, and no final decision has been reached. Internally, though, officials and coaches have discussed and considered the idea of Zimmerman – a former Gold Glove third baseman in the first year of a six-year, $100 million contract extension – playing left field.
“We haven’t said anything to him,” one Nationals official said. “But we’re watching him. Put him out there, let him go.”
Friday, Zimmerman insisted he hadn’t spoken to anyone about the outfield, and that he stood in left field during BP only as a creative means to condition himself. Mention the idea to a Nationals official, and the response typically contains nervous laughter.
“He’s just getting some conditioning,” one coach said Friday, before he walked away smiling.
“Conditioning,” said another Saturday, before he jokingly put his fingers in his ears and walked away.
The Nationals have reason for public reticence. First, Zimmerman needs to get healthy first before any of it matters, and he would probably prefer to focus on rehab without speculation about a position switch. (Sorry, Ryan.) Second, there’s no final decision if the change will happen or how it would be executed, so it does no one any good to talk about it while Zimmerman is still a few weeks away from coming off the disabled list.
But they have also begun to make an evaluation. The Nationals have little doubt Zimmerman would be an adequate outfielder, at least. If Michael Morse managed to play left field to a draw, then Zimmerman could stand out there, too. A college shortstop, Zimmerman possesses more athleticism and better instincts than many slugging corner outfielders. One coach said Zimmerman already moves like an outfielder as he shags flyballs.
Why would the Nationals want to move Zimmerman to the outfield? It would make their lineup better, it might make their defense better, it would make them more flexible and it would make dealing with an arthritic right shoulder easier for Zimmerman to deal with.
While no timetable exists yet, Zimmerman figures to return before Bryce Harper recovers from his left thumb surgery in early July. If Zimmerman played left, they could insert his bat into the lineup while keeping Danny Espinosa, an elite defender, at second base and Anthony Rendon at third.
Even once Harper returns, Zimmerman in left would give the Nationals their best chance at their most powerful offense. Denard Span currently has a .296 on-base percentage. Last season, he faced a similar struggle before he turned hot down the stretch. But if Span continues making outs at a high rate, the Nationals could keep Zimmerman in left and play Harper in center on some days.
In effect, they could recreate the thunderous lineup they employed with Morse in 2012. How does this lineup look?
1. Anthony Rendon, 3B
2. Bryce Harper, CF
3. Jayson Werth, RF
4. Adam LaRoche, 1B
5. Ryan Zimmerman, LF
6. Wilson Ramos, C
7. Ian Desmond, SS
8. Danny Espinosa, 2B
Even though Zimmerman has played third base his entire career, often at a high level, playing left may actually pose less of a challenge than returning to his old position. It would take far less precision for Zimmerman to hit a cutoff man than to fire the ball across the diamond.
Zimmerman was just coming back from a few days off to rest his inflamed shoulder at the time he dove into second base and broke his thumb. Transitioning to left may be tough, but third does not exactly agree with him, either, and time off will not necessarily provide relief.
“I don’t know if my shoulder can really be helped by not throwing,” Zimmerman said Friday. “It’s not like it’s a rotator of a labrum or a muscle. It’s different issues than that. Maybe. Maybe it’ll be a magic five weeks.”
The Nationals may not know yet how they will use Zimmerman once he returns. But left field, a perfectly logical idea once every side is considered, is one option. And that alone is a remarkable turn for both the team and its franchise player.