Firstly, Manager Matt Williams wants Ryan Zimmerman to heal. In his recovery from a torn hamstring, Zimmerman has yet to advance to baseball activities beyond jogging and playing catch. Once he can sprint in a straight line, Zimmerman will be able to start swinging.
“It’s a long road,” Williams said. “We want to make sure when he’s back, he’s back.”
Once Zimmerman can sprint and swing and run bases, he’ll head to the instructional league for at-bats in a game setting. By mid-to-late September, the Nationals hope, Zimmerman should return. And then Williams will face the question of how Zimmerman will be used. For now, Williams envisions Zimmerman in a utility role that would also include coming off the bench as a pinch hitter.
“He’s certainly got the ability to play three positions for us,” Williams said. “He can play third. He can play left. He can play first, depending on where the need is. That being said, I want to make sure we’re not throwing him in there every day, to make sure that he’s good to go. I would imagine he’ll play all three of those, on any given day. There’s no real set plan where he’s going to play third every day or he’s going to play left every day, or he’s going to play first every day. He’s probably going to play all of them.”
Zimmerman remains one of the Nationals’ best hitters, and he is also a franchise player who signed a $100 million extension that began this season. But the Nationals have also gone 20-11 since they acquired Asdrubal Cabrera to replace Zimmerman. And so Williams could see Zimmerman – who is 7 for 21 in his career as a pinch hitter – coming off the bench some days.
“Sure, yeah,” Williams said. “It’s important for him to get some swings, though. He’s going to go play a little bit [in the instructional league]. I want to make sure first and foremost his swing is there and he feels good about that before we activate him and get him with us.”
Zimmerman would boost the Nationals’ lineup, but their defense would suffer no matter where he played. But Williams said he would be comfortable with Zimmerman’s defense no matter where he plays.
“For the time that he was back when he was playing third base, he made every play,” Williams said. “Everybody talks about his defense, but he made every play that was hit to him. I’m not worried about that. What I’m worried about is his health, and making sure that if he hits a ball to short, he can go to first without any issues.”
There are still two weeks or so for the situation to sort itself out. Zimmerman’s health and how he regains his timing could dictate his usage. So could the health of other Nationals – the Nationals expect Adam LaRoche to return to full strength Thursday at Nationals Park, but his balky back affected him throughout their nine-game trip. But for now, Zimmerman could function as a high-priced, overqualified utility man.
“It’s going to be mix and match,” Williams said. “Situations like we had last night where we want to stack righties, we can. First and foremost, worry about his health, though. When he gets out there, I want him to score from first. He has to be able to do that before we can say, ‘Go get ’em.’ I know he’s anxious, and he wants to get back as quickly as possible. This is something you simply can’t rush.”