Wednesday evening, Ryan Zimmerman sat next Cal Ripken, his boyhood idol, and listened as he described changing positions. For Ripken, the late-career move from shortstop to third base provided a larger mental hurdle than physical challenge. “It’s between your ears to be willing to do it,” Ripken said. “The hardest part for anyone is to embrace what the move is all about.”
Zimmerman is not ready to embrace a move, and neither are the Nationals. Speaking at a fundraiser for the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, Zimmerman said the Nationals have given him every indication he will remain at third base for at least the 2014 season. Having moved past last winter’s shoulder surgery – mentally as much as physically – Zimmerman believes he can shed the throwing woes that undermined his 2013 season.
“Like I’ve said all along, if someone is better than me, I’ll move,” Zimmerman said. “Going through the shoulder issues that I’ve been through, really the last two, two and a half years, I feel like I got over that hump.”
A move from third to first base for Zimmerman, which has long been considered a feasible option inside and outside the organization, would clear the way for Anthony Rendon to play third base, his natural position. Though a move now would force the Nationals to trade Adam LaRoche (and likely eat a portion of his salary), it would also make a potential run at free agent Robinson Cano more likely.
But all of that exists as pure speculation, and it will apparently remain a hypothetical until at least the start of 2014. General Manager Mike Rizzo has committed to Adam LaRoche as his first baseman, and he has told Zimmerman he wants him to stay at third.
“They’ve been supportive the whole time,” said Zimmerman, whose six-year, $100 million contract will begin this year. “Mike wants me to stay at third with what they’ve invested in me, obviously. I think he knows that I’m working as hard as I can to stay there.”
Zimmerman underwent surgery in November
2013 2012 to repair an inflamed AC joint and also repair fraying in his rotator cuff and labrum. The rehab stretched into spring training, and once the year started Zimmerman continued to fight mechanical changes and the nasty thoughts that came with them.
“It was a tough year,” Zimmerman said. “It was the first time ever on a baseball field where I felt uncomfortable. I think the hardest part was not the physical part, but the mental part of going out there and having to go through that and beat it, I guess. Once I got over that, my confidence grew a little bit. It was part of a process that I think will make me better in the long run. As of now, I feel good to go.”
Zimmerman’s offseason has included one major change. His wife, Heather, gave birth to the couple’s first child, a daughter, two weeks ago. (“We were talking about kids and not getting any sleep,” Ripken said.) From a baseball standpoint, his health has allowed him a refreshing return to routine.
“It’s kind of nice,” Zimmerman said. “I can just do what I usually do, work out the way I’ve always worked out, just get ready for spring and the second week of February. It’s been a nice offseason, actually.”
The spring will bring another change, the fifth full-time manager of his career. Zimmerman has only corresponded with Matt Williams by texting, and he said he plans to meet Williams later this week when Williams travels to Washington.
“When he was the third base coach in Arizona, I chatted with him a little bit,” Zimmerman said. “He wasn’t too talkative as a third base coach. I kind of like that, I think. The guys that talk too much kind of annoy you a little bit. You worry if they really care about the game. With Matt, you could tell he was focused. [Judging from] the guys that I’ve talked to that have talked to him, obviously the type of player he was, I’m pretty excited to sit down and see what his plans are. I’m excited about the year.”
Zimmerman also applauded the Nationals’ first major acquisition, Monday’s swap with the Tigers for Doug Fister. He viewed it as a prudent, win-now move.
“I think Mike Rizzo has done a lot of things that make sense,” Zimmerman said. “Doug has got two years left of arbitration, so you get a solid No. 3 starter for not much contractual obligation. We lose a guy like [Steve Lombardozzi] and [Ian] Krol who helped us out, and a young pitcher that a year and a half, two years down the line could be a good pitcher at the big league level. With where we’re at now as an organization, I think we’re ready to win now. To win in this league and to go deep into the playoffs, you have to have pitching. … To throw a guy like Doug in there as a No. 4, if you want to call him that, gives you a lot of depth.”
Zimmerman joined Ripken at the Four Seasons in Georgetown to support Ripken’s fund-raiser. The Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation supports at-risk youth and has grown from a local charity into a national program.
“I don’t think it’s a secret growing up, Cal was one of the guys I idolized, along with millions of people around this area,” Zimmerman said. “I think we both do a lot of charity work and things off the field, which unfortunately nowadays is not as common as it used to be. I feel like more and more, there’s not guys to look up to like Cal. … It’s nice to be here and be able to team up with him and help him come into this area that I can call home now.”