In batting practice Wednesday, Ryan Zimmerman hit a ball 410 feet into the last row of the red seats in deep left-center field. He has been lifting weights for six weeks as his broken right thumb heals. In drills, he threw 120 feet, working his way to 150 feet. He will return to the lineup soon. But where? For how long? And ultimately, in two weeks or next year, where does the player most identified with the Nats franchise end up playing — third base, first base or (pause) left field?
“I’ve come to some self-realizations. I’ll be the first to say it. I’ve never shied away from the truth. The last two years have been rough for me [at third base]. I’ve had to do an excess of work to be able to do what I used to do naturally,” said Zimmerman, alone at his locker. “People keep asking me if six weeks off will help my [surgically repaired] shoulder. Six weeks off? Go six years back, maybe. It’s tough. It’s bone and joint.
“I’m comfortable playing wherever it helps the team. That’s why we’re all here. Down the road,” he said, not specifying whether that was in days or years, “left field is probably better than first base for me.”
So there you have it, mixed with the memory of years of pain, surgery, embarrassing wild throws and cortisone shots in his often-injured throwing shoulder. Ryan Zimmerman, one of the best, most acrobatic and graceful third basemen of his generation, a Gold Glove winner, is trying — amid all the conditional clauses — to say goodbye to the position he has always loved.
Zim’s appointment with left field may be imminent, not hypothetical. For two weeks, he has been taking balls off the bat in left, often from Manager Matt Williams, who hits flies as a coach soft tosses — a more realistic simulation to teach proper jumps. He has looked smooth and sure-handed, even running full speed to his backhand over his head.
With regular left fielder Bryce Harper out with a torn thumb ligament until mid-July, Zimmerman could move into the new position with Anthony Rendon, the third baseman of the future who has looked good in Zimmerman’s absence, simply staying at a position he may never leave.
Williams has said he prefers to disrupt as few positions at one time as possible. If he put Zimmerman in left — and he made it clear Wednesday he has made no decisions at this point and that first, third and left are all possibilities — he could return Nate McLouth to his original fourth-outfielder role and let Danny Espinosa (glove) and Kevin Frandsen (bat) share second base.
What might happen after that? First, Zimmerman must prove he can handle the position. Josh Willingham and Michael Morse, two Clydesdales, played the spot to a draw. Zim could probably match them wearing an eye patch. He certainly thinks so.
“If they needed me to, I could do it adequately,” he says. “I wouldn’t probably win any Gold Gloves or lead the league in assists. But I’m confident I can catch the ball and get it back in a timely fashion. The throw from the outfield is a lot different. You can take a few more steps [to add strength]. The infield is so demanding — backhand, spin — the throws are mostly just arm. The infield is tough.”
Goodbye, infield. So long. Been good to know you.
Longer term, the notion of Zimmerman as an outfielder may send ripples throughout the clubhouse. In ’12, the Nats won 98 games with a power-hitting outfield, with defensive limitations — Morse in left, Harper in center (his favorite outfield position) and Jayson Werth in right while Adam LaRoche added still more power at first base. Could a similar configuration be part of the Nats’ plans in 2015 — or even by Harper’s return? It’s sometimes assumed that the Nats and LaRoche will part after this season. But they actually have a mutual option (for $15 million with a $2 million buyout) for ’15. Such options are seldom picked up. One side or the other wants out. This might be the exception as LaRoche is a clubhouse centerpiece in the midst of a strong hitting year.
But where would that leave center fielder Denard Span when Harper returns or in ’15? Sabermetricians love his defense, and so do Nats pitchers. He has a $9 million option for ’15. I’d love to be a fly on the wall as the Nats’ brain trust, with plenty of math input, debates the relative value of a slick defending first baseman at $15 million who syncs with a power lineup vs. an elegant center fielder with a mediocre-to-poor .322 on-base percentage as the Nats’ leadoff man in 197 games the past two years.
Some with the Nats would like to see whether Zimmerman, freed from the physical abuse of throwing himself around at third base, could stay healthy and approach his offensive levels of 2009-10, when he played in 299 games, hit. 299 and averaged 29 homers and 96 RBI with an elite .893 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
As solid as Rendon has looked at third, he’s not the highlight-reel glove that Zimmerman, still only 29, was a few years ago. Letting go of those memories may be hard. But the more recent reality is the unnerving sight of Zimmerman unleashing incredibly wild throws on easy plays. Sometimes they rattled the whole team, in part because the close-knit club knew how much they bothered the conscientious Zimmerman. Years of injuries, surgeries, play-with-pain-shots and the psychological weight of those errors may have earned him the reward of being “put out to pasture” in the outfield.
But his focus is not on what position he plays. “You only have so many years in your career when you’re in that period where your team can contend for pennants or a championship. We’re in those years. I’d like to win some of those,” Zimmerman said. “Everyone in here, we’d all do whatever we needed to do to get that accomplished. I’ll play anywhere they want me, bat anywhere they want.
“We’re only three games out of first place. Because of ’12, people think we should win 100 every year. That’s not the game,” said Zimmerman, who may not know the Boston Red Sox have won 98 games only once since ’51. “Baseball people know you have to be realistic. It’s about who is healthy and playing best in August and September. We’ve been banged up. But we’re getting well. We’re excited.”
Even if, in Zimmerman’s case, that means getting yourself excited about moving from a spot you seemed born to play in glory to the hard work of on-the-job-training in the unfamiliar terrain of left field.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.