LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Late last week in Washington, Matt Williams met with Ryan Zimmerman for the first time since Williams became the manager of the Washington Nationals. As each shared their view on the team and Zimmerman’s role, Williams posed a question to the Nationals’ franchise player: “Do you own a first baseman’s mitt?”
Zimmerman did not, and he still has not started to break in an oversize glove. But, he promises, that will change.
“I’ll get one,” Zimmerman said.
Let there be no confusion: Zimmerman will remain the Nationals’ everyday third baseman in 2014. But, Zimmerman confirmed Tuesday afternoon that the Nationals’ plans for him next season include spot duty at first base. Zimmerman will take some grounders at first base during spring training, the possible first step in a potential permanent switch in a future season.
The way Zimmerman finished last season convinced both the Nationals and himself that he has conquered the throwing issues that threatened to derail him early in 2013. But the Nationals see value in adding to Zimmerman’s versatility.
By Zimmerman’s comprehension of the Nationals’ plan, he could spell Adam LaRoche in the starting lineup against tough, left-handed starting pitchers roughly 10 to 15 games. He will also be an option to move across the diamond if a double-switch removes LaRoche from the game. In the Nationals’ current plan, he’s a third baseman who will happen to play some first.
“If that’s best for the team, I’m willing to play over there,” Zimmerman said in a phone conversation. “I don’t want to play 60 games over there. The way I played at the end of last season and the way my arm felt, I think third base is my best position and it gives our team the best chance to win. I feel like I’m the best third baseman that we have.
“I think it’s more something like, ‘Have you ever played over there? Would you be willing to play there just in case?’ You know me. If I can help our team by playing over there, I’ll do it.”
Zimmerman’s foray at first base could help ease a transition later in his career. LaRoche’s contract will expire after 2014, and the Nationals may move Zimmerman to first and put current second baseman Anthony Rendon at third base, the position Rendon played in college and the minor leagues.
For this season, Zimmerman will give Williams more options while he makes out his lineup and in late-game decisions. LaRoche has typically held his own against left-handed pitchers throughout his career. Last year, though, LaRoche hit .198 with a .566 OPS and three homers against lefties. Against top left-handed starters, the Nationals could play Rendon at third, Ian Desmond at shortstop, Danny Espinosa at second and Zimmerman at first.
If Zimmerman can play first, it would lessen the Nationals’ need to add a right-handed hitter on the bench who can play first base. They have shown interest in free agent Jeff Baker for that role, but Zimmerman’s willingness to play first base could allow them to focus on a different kind of bench player.
Williams did not ask Zimmerman to add first base to his arsenal out of fear for a repeat of Zimmerman’s early-season throwing woes. Zimmerman underwent shoulder surgery in November 2012, and a lack of arm strength, ensuing mechanical changes and mental hurdles led to a preponderance of wayward throws.
Evidenced by several spectacular plays and strong throws Zimmerman made down the stretch, those problems seem to have faded. Zimmerman has expressed confidence in his arm and his ability to continue to strengthen it, and the Nationals agree.
“I know that from talking to him and talking to the doctors and the trainers and our rehab coordinators, his shoulder is 100 percent,” Williams said. “It needs to get a little bit stronger and that’s what he’s working on. Again, there’s a process of injuries. You get injured. They fix it. Then you rehab it and then you get back into playing shape.
“At the end of last year he was just getting back to the point where it wasn’t a struggle for him to get a ball across the diamond. That is just arm strength. He’s working on that now, he’ll continue to work on it. And he’s going to be just fine.”
Williams said Zimmerman has the athletic ability to play any infield position – “he could play shortstop if he wanted to,” Williams said. Still, Zimmerman views learning first base as a significant challenge. He readily admits he has no earthly idea how to play first base. He has appeared in 1,110 major league games in the field: one at shortstop, 1,109 at third base.
“I don’t even know which foot stretch at first base,” Zimmerman said. “As much as I’m going to be playing over there, I don’t think I’m going to need a crash course. I’d like to think other guys will have confidence in me, that if they can get it close, I’ll be able to catch it.”
Zimmerman also mentioned the difficulty of playing the game from the opposite side of the field. The view will be strange for him. And the sight of Zimmerman, the Nationals’ franchise third baseman, lining up on the other side of the diamond will be just as strange for everyone else.