(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)mmerman

Manager Matt Williams reaffirmed his plans to move Ryan Zimmerman back to third base from left field once Bryce Harper returns from the disabled list in early July, providing a definitive answer – if not a perfect solution – to the most pressing question facing the Nationals.

“We got a pretty good outfielder hopefully coming back really soon,” Williams said. “The perfect world is, Zim would go back to third, where he’s played a long time and won a Gold Glove. And when Harp’s ready, Harp will play left. That’s the plan.”

With Zimmerman back at third base, Anthony Rendon would shift back to second base and Danny Espinosa would return to the bench. It would give the Nationals their best offensive lineup while weakening their infield defense forcing Zimmerman back to a position he appears to have grown uncomfortable.

“That would be a full-strength team for us,” Williams said. “I think Danny has played really well at second base for us. If Harp comes back and he’s playing the outfield, then we have to put Zim back at third.”

Just because Zimmerman has played third in the past does not mean he can – or wants to – now. In recent comments, Zimmerman said he “could” play third. But he also called his move to left field “refreshing” and “a new chapter.” It will almost certainly be harder for Zimmerman to move back to third than it was for him to change to left. On Sunday in San Diego, Zimmerman joined Nationals infielders for early practice. He took grounders at first base, but not third.

His surgically repaired right shoulder has become chronic and arthritic. Inflammation forced him to miss a game early this season before he broke his thumb. In a game against the Braves, he launched a critical throw over Adam LaRoche’s head with an awkward motion.

“The last two years have been rough,” Zimmerman said over the weekend. “Physically, they’ve been rough. Mentally, not so much thinking about the throwing, things like that. Just the continual coming to the field and trying new things every day. Once you do start to feel comfortable, waking up and wondering if you’re still going to feel comfortable every day. It’s something that I’ve never had to deal with.”

Zimmerman has shown himself to be a consummate team player, and there is no reason to doubt he would accept a move to third. But it would considerably hurt the Nationals’ infield defense. His throwing problems would become a concern at third, where Rendon has frequently made spectacular plays. Rendon is a serviceable second baseman, but Espinosa is among the best defensive second baseman in the majors.

“We just got to make the plays,” Williams said. “Certainly, Danny is really good. He plays Gold Glove-caliber defense. But Anthony has done a nice job over there, and Zim’s accustomed to playing third. We just need to make the plays – get it done when we need to get it done.”

In the meantime, Zimmerman has surpassed modest expectations as a left fielder. Tuesday night, he tracked down one ball along the foul line and another in the warning track, cruising to the ball and making an effortless, one-handed catch.

“We saw him when he first started being able to get back on the field running around out there without any problem,” Williams said. “Bigger guys, you worry about the ball bouncing on them when they’re running. We haven’t seen any of that. This ballpark is very difficult to play, and he’s handled it great. I think he’s done a great job. He’s gone to each gap. He’s gone down the line. He’s come in on line drives right at him and handled everything cleanly, and with ease. That part of it is a pleasant surprise. He seems to enjoying it.”