The second-winningest season in the history of the Washington Nationals came, in large part, without the on-field contributions of the consensus face of the franchise. Beset by injuries, Ryan Zimmerman played in 61 games last season — by far the lowest total of his career since establishing himself in 2006 — and played only sparingly in some of those 61 outings.
But last year aside, Zimmerman has been relatively durable. He played in at least 100 games every season from 2006-2013, all 162 in 2007, and at least 140 in six of those eight seasons. He will be 30 years old on opening day, a significant number, but far from a signal that he’s ready to lurch and sputter his way through the five seasons remaining on his contract.
He arrives in camp ready for a well-documented move to first base, one that should relieve pressure on his consistently unstable throwing shoulder at a position that requires fewer and shorter throws. His hamstring is healed, he says, and he’s adjusted his offseason regimen to avoid problems such as the ones he had last year. In other words, the long-time face of the Nationals is ready to reclaim his place at the center of his team’s offensive and defensive workings.
“I think it’s a big part of us being a good team so that’s the whole goal, Zimmerman said of perfecting his play at first base. “I’m just going to be the best that I can be over there and help the guys out in the infield.”
Zimmerman trained to play third last season, though he did do some work at first base last spring training, and then worked some in the outfield during the season.
“It was kind of fun to mix it up a little bit,” Zimmerman said — though he admitted he is happy to know where he’ll be stationed this season.
Zimmerman arrived at Nationals camp Monday morning, and hadn’t been at Space Coast Stadium for more than an hour before he was out on the field getting in extra work, supervised closely by Matt Williams and other members of the Nationals coaching staff. Tuesday, he did the same thing, taking grounders before pitchers and catchers’ scheduled workouts. Position players are required to report to Viera today and have their first official workout Thursday.
“Right now, it’s three or four days in a row just to take ground balls and kind of get back in shape before camp starts,” Zimmerman said of the extra work. “Then once camp starts, obviously we have six weeks, we have plenty of time. There’s no reason to rush or do anything. We have more, more than enough time down here to get what you need done.”
Zimmerman’s to-do list consists of honing all aspects of first base, a position manned last season by 2012 Gold Glove winner Adam LaRoche. When asked if he’d talked to LaRoche for advice, Zimmerman explained that the now White Sox first baseman “doesn’t answer his phone in the offseason.” But he also said he learned plenty by watching LaRoche and another smooth-fielding former Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson. Even so, as he worked on turning the double play this morning — fielding to his right, spinning, and throwing — Zimmerman showed off the side-arm toss he exhibited at third base for the past few seasons. He likely will not resemble LaRoche nor Johnson just yet, though he may get similar results.
“Everyone’s different. No one can play every position the same, just like nobody hits the same,” Zimmerman said. “It’s going to be on me to play the position the way I need to play it.”
That should be easier now that he’s healthy. The hamstring he injured July 22 was already “almost 100 percent” near the end of last season, he explained Tuesday, but the risk of re-injuring it would have been too great for him to play substantial innings in late September and October. He was limited to pinch-hit duties in October, picking up a single in the 18-inning loss to the Giants in Game 2 of the National League Division Series.
“It was too much of a risk to put me out there and let me play because once you get into a game, you can’t go 80 percent. But I was good a month after the season. So for the rest of the offseason I could train and do everything I wanted to, and everything feels good.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m old, but I have a lot of miles I guess is the best thing,” Zimmerman added when asked what he changed this offseason to avoid similar injury troubles. “…If you want to be an athlete, you have to kind of evolve. Things change and technology nowadays as far as training and lifting and staying healthy and eating right and doing all that stuff is a lot different than it was 10 years ago. You take things you feel work for you, and use them. This year we changed it, not a lot, just a couple things here and there. Feel good.”
Zimmerman didn’t specify what changes he made to that offseason regimen, though he vowed not to change his in-game approach — as in, jog to first on no-doubt groundball outs, or the like — for the sake of self-preservation.
“I’m just going to keep playing how I’ve always played. One hamstring in 10 years, I’m going to take my chances,” he said. “…Part of my game is always to try to run out everything, and if I don’t do that, then other guys might not do that. If I’m not healthy to do that, then I’m not going to play.”
As of Tuesday morning, he looked plenty healthy and genuinely determined in his morning workout. A few bouncers got by him. His footwork on the double play earned critiques from the coaches. Williams, who made the move from third to first during his playing days, demonstrated moves again and again. The last ground ball he fielded was a chopper that took a noticeably high hop as Zimmerman charged past the cutout. He adjusted, picked it, spun and threw on-point to second base. Williams hollered something and walked in toward him, then offered a fist bump to his new starting first baseman.