An MRI exam taken Wednesday morning revealed Ryan Zimmerman suffered a “pretty substantial” right hamstring strain that will leave the Washington Nationals without one of their most indispensable players for an indeterminate stretch, Manager Matt Williams said.
The Nationals placed Zimmerman on the 15-day disabled list with a right hamstring strain, called up infielder Zach Walters and considered contingencies for how they will chase the pennant without their bedrock third baseman for the second time this season.
“It’s pretty tough,” Zimmerman said. “Those are things that happen. There’s nothing you can really do about it. There’s no reason to pout or feel sorry for yourself. You try to be here for these guys. We’re playing good baseball, and I think we’ll continue to do that before I get back. Hopefully, I’ll get back sooner than later.”
Zimmerman planned to travel with the Nationals to Cincinnati, where the team will play a three-game series beginning Friday, and then return to Washington for treatment and further consultation with team doctors. When asked how early he could return, Zimmerman chuckled. “I wish I knew,” he said. He did not want to place an estimate before learning more.
“We haven’t really heard much yet, so it’s hard to say anything in the long term,” Zimmerman said. “I’m sore today, just like we thought I would be. We don’t really have any timetable or anything like that, other than it’s a pretty decent strain.”
Early on, the Nationals knew it would not be good. Nationals team physician Dr. Wiemi Douoguih had yet to interpret results from the MRI exam Wednesday morning. But when Zimmerman arrived in the Nationals clubhouse following the test, it did not portend an optimistic outlook.
“It’s actually a little worse,” Williams said. “When I spoke with him this morning, he hadn’t had any treatment on it. When you’re hot and it happens, it doesn’t feel quite as bad as the next morning when you wake up. But we’ll see what the results are.”
In June, catcher Wilson Ramos strained his hamstring running to second base and missed only the minimum 15 days on the disabled list. Even without test results, it’s evident Zimmerman suffered a more serious injury.
“He’s acting a little bit worse than Wilson’s was,” Williams said. “Wilson came in the next day and said, ‘It’s not too bad.’ He didn’t have any issues walking. Zim’s pretty sore. He’s pretty tight. We’ll have to see. I would venture to say it’s probably a little bit worse.”
Zimmerman did not require crutches to walk, but “it’s ginger,” Williams said. “He’s certainly not straightening the leg all the way. That’s a concern.”
Zimmerman already missed 44 games on the disabled list this year after he broke his right thumb. The Nationals have gone 33-19 and averaged 4.9 runs when Zimmerman plays. Without him, they’ve gone 22-24 and scored 3.5 runs per game. Having regained his timing coming off his first DL stint, Zimmerman had been one of the Nationals’ best hitters, batting .362 with a .418 on-base percentage and .569 slugging percentage with two homers in 58 July at-bats.
The Nationals will move Anthony Rendon to third base and Danny Espinosa to second base. Espinosa, a switch-hitter, has been far better against left-handed pitchers than right-handed pitchers. Walters, who has played mostly second base at Class AAA Syracuse, may see time against right-handed starting pitchers. Wednesday afternoon, Walters sparked a two-run, ninth-inning rally with a two-out, pinch-hit single.
“We want to get him reps, certainly,” Williams said. “With the lefty today, Danny’s back in there. We’ll see what the coming days give us. But Zach’s been playing really well.”
The Nationals chose Walters over outfielder Steven Souza, who leads the International League in average (.359), on-base percentage (.436) and slugging (.597). With a full outfield and two extra outfielders in Scott Hairston and Nate McLouth, the Nationals may not have been able to find at-bats for Souza.
Walters can play second base against right-handed starters, and the Nationals valued his defensive versatility. He’s also hitting .300 with a .608 slugging percentage in 60 games, not enough to qualify for league leader boards. At Syracuse, Walters has played second base, shortstop, third base and even some outfield.
“If we were to think about another outfielder, then we’d be really limited in our infield,” Williams said. “Souza’s playing well. Zach’s playing well. With the injury to Zim, we needed some middle infield backup there, and to balance the bench with infielders and outfielders.”
Utility man Kevin Frandsen will be the Nationals’ backup first baseman behind Adam LaRoche.
Zimmerman’s injury could spur the Nationals to explore a trade prior to the July 31 trade deadline. Because of Rendon’s ability to play both second and third base, the Nationals could seek a second baseman or a third baseman on the trade market.
“Injuries certainly help you make decisions on what you would want or need,” Williams said. “You look at Zim’s injury, and that could potentially speak to you and say, ‘Well, let’s look at that.’ Depending on how long he may be out, that’s something that we may take a look at as well. But we have constant dialogue about who may be out there, what it could potentially mean for your team and what it would cost. … Certainly, Zim’s injury, him being out at least two weeks, we have to take a hard look at that.”
Martin Prado and Aaron Hill, both of whom Williams coached with the Arizona Diamondbacks, would fit the Nationals’ needs. An excellent defender and an all-star in 2009, Hill owns a paltry .664 on-base-plus-slugging percentage this season. But he’s also come out of the all-star break hot, going 8 for 19 with a homer and two doubles.
Prado, who went to the Diamondbacks when they traded Justin Upton to the Braves, is hitting .272/.317/.365. He can play left field, third base and second base and is regarded as a hard-working, team-first player.
Both Prado and Hill have contracts that would make a deal difficult. Hill will make roughly $4.2 million the rest of the season and $12 million in both 2015 and 2016. Prado will also make about $4.2 million the remainder of this year and then $11 million in each of the next two seasons.
Prado’s defensive flexibility would make his contract more palatable. The Nationals could make either player fit in seasons to come. If Adam LaRoche leaves in free agency, Zimmerman could take over at first base, Rendon could play third and a player they trade for could stick at second, with Espinosa continuing to serve in the bench role. Still, General Manager Mike Rizzo seemed content to use Espinosa as Zimmerman’s replacement.
“We’ve got a third baseman,” Rizzo said. “We’ve got Zim signed for a long time. We’re not worried about filling Zim’s shoes, which would be almost impossible to fill in a trade scenario, anyways. We like the team we have. We got where we’re at with Danny playing meaningful innings.”
It remains unclear if the Nationals could add any salaries at the trade deadline. On opening day, Nationals owner Mark Lerner said the Nationals were “beyond topped out” with a payroll of nearly $140 million.
“We’re not going to talk about our strategy,” Rizzo said. “Ownership has been very fair with me. They’ve given us all the tools we need to get where we’re at right now.”