It’s time for the Nationals to start Ryan Zimmerman’s migration from third to first

The Washington Nationals put a first baseman’s glove in Ryan Zimmerman’s locker when he arrived in spring training. It’s time for him to start using it. Not all the time. But as much as is feasible — about a third of Nats games, I estimate — so his throbbing throwing shoulder can get rest and he can learn the position full-time for next season.

Against left-handers, bench Adam LaRoche, who has never hit southpaws as well as right-handers, and put Zimmerman at first base. Move Anthony Rendon to third base and put Danny Espinosa at second base. Over their careers, Espinosa has hit lefties better than LaRoche: a .258 average, .332 on-base percentage and .450 slugging percentage to .244/.300/.429. In essence, sub Espinosa for LaRoche. That lets Zimmerman avoid third base for almost 30 percent of the season. In the few games played in American League parks, let Zimmerman be designated hitter. When his shoulder barks, give him days off; if LaRoche is dinged, put Zim at first.

But, whatever you do, get him off third as much as possible. His wild throws and shallow defensive positioning (to compensate for his weak arm) make him a defensive liability. As his throwing problems — and embarrassing makeshift fixes to his throwing mechanics — have multiplied, he has never equaled his offensive production in 2008-09, when he hit .299 with an .893 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. Is his very good, but lesser, hitting in recent years connected to a bit of lost confidence? Who knows? But playing a physically easier position, and keeping weight and power up all year, is unlikely to hurt his hitting. At age 29, maybe 33 homers and 106 RBI are still inside him.

Besides, it’s time. Don’t the Nats owe him a chance to be a player who doesn’t have to wonder, every inning of every game, am I about to throw one wild, rattle the team and maybe cost us a game? Zimmerman would say, “No, do whatever’s best for the team.” The team needs to ask, “Is what’s best for Ryan also best for us, too?”

This is no happy “solution.” You waste LaRoche’s bat, still adequate against lefties, for 40 or more games. It’s not fair to him. Espinosa may not hit enough to hold his role and another infielder (perhaps Zach Walters) may be needed at second. All superior suggestions are welcomed.

But Zimmerman is not an everyday third baseman any more. For the rest of this year, can he be a 100-game third baseman with a rested shoulder? Maybe. Maybe he can’t even do that. But why not start there? It’s one possible least bad accommodation of an ugly reality that’s been coming for years.

Right now, the Nats don’t know when Zimmerman’s inflamed but not structurally damaged right shoulder, which has had multiple surgeries, will stop aching enough for him to play defense. Maybe Tuesday, maybe two weeks or a month from Tuesday.

After leaving Saturday’s game, then being out of the lineup Sunday and having an MRI exam, Zimmerman conceded that sometimes his shoulder feels good, sometimes bad but — and this is the key — “never as bad as now.” If this is the worst ever, then it’s agony. Not when he hits. Just on overhand throws.

Zimmerman has done so much for the Nats, and has so much more to give (he’s off to a .350 start with a 430-foot homer in New York on Wednesday), that the team needs to strategize the best way to give his shoulder a chance to protest but not quit. And simultaneously pave the way for Zimmerman to move to his logical future position — first base — next year after LaRoche leaves as a free agent. In business terms, LaRoche is a sunk cost, money already spent, while Zimmerman is a long-term asset, just a week into his $100 million extension.

I hope I’m wrong and, somehow, things just work themselves out, by golly. That’s still the Nats’ public position. Manager Matt Williams theorizes that Zimmerman has thrown so much since the start of spring training, trying to strengthen his arm and improve his accuracy, he has simply made everything worse. No structural damage is good. But surgeries, a half-season of playing with cortisone shots to mask his injury (in 98-win 2012) and endless practice to groove his latest wheat-harvester-with-the-hiccups throwing motion has left his throwing a physical, mental and mechanical mess.

And even that may be optimistic. The Nats and Zimmerman may simply have to admit that he has sacrificed his ability to play third base to the team cause. If that day comes soon, the most radical next step may arrive: Trade LaRoche for best offer and move Zim to first.

With salaries skyrocketing, Zimmerman’s bat is enough to justify his contract. He has all the tools to become a Gold Glove-candidate first baseman — 6 feet 4, an exceptional glove to dig low throws, quick range in both directions and, still, uncanny accuracy on sidearm throws to start the 3-6-3 double play.

The Nats and Williams prefer status quo. Their offseason analysis was that Zim can still play third. They won’t give that up after one week. “I envision him playing third base,” Williams said Sunday. “That’s the plan. You have to look at things and adjust if need be. For now, as soon as he feels good, then he’ll be back at third.”

The only evidence that Zimmerman may still have a big-league third baseman’s arm came last September when his throws were firm to first base, though never really as strong as they once were. Was his major surgery after ’12 paying off, if slowly? With more work, work, work before 2014, would this season be the return of hot corner Zim? Well, work-work-work is a disaster. Even watching Zimmerman throw to first between innings is painful.

The Nats still hope for one last-ditch simple fix — throw less, much less, except in the games themselves. “We have to curtail that [throwing program] just a touch,” said Williams. “Maybe it’s cutting down on the amount of grounders he takes in pregame. He goes down, especially when it’s cold, in the cage and throws. Maybe it’s an adjustment to that, too.”

In other words, dutiful Zimmerman, the Virginia gentleman, the charity fundraiser, the model citizen who seeks responsibilities, may be under the stands throwing while we’re getting a beer and criticizing his throwing.

“We’re going to take the appropriate steps to make sure his arm feels good,” said Williams. “Once it does, he’s going to play third for us. . . . I don’t anticipate that being a long time [from now].”

Cities, fans and teams themselves grow to love players who deserve to be loved and refuse to believe that a sport that’s core to their lives can be so cruel. The human response is denial. So, give it one last shot. Everyone in baseball has their fingers crossed for Zimmerman. But it feels like a fantasy.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist.
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