Everyone — from Mike Rizzo to Dave Martinez, from Zimmerman himself to people inside and outside the organization who know him well — insists the 33-year-old is fine. Anyone who knows his injury history has reason to be suspicious.
Zimmerman has played in one Grapefruit League game, and that came in February. He was scratched from a start with tightness in his side a few weeks ago. Despite near-daily duty in minor league games, Zimmerman has not played in the Grapefruit League since. He was not in the lineup for Tuesday’s game against the Marlins, and Martinez said he probably won’t play Wednesday either.
“Probably sometime this weekend,” said Martinez, when asked for what must have been the 100th time this spring about Zimmerman’s arrival. If Zimmerman were to play Wednesday, he could play five more Grapefruit League games before traveling north for the regular season. If he doesn’t play until the weekend, he will get, at most, two more games before heading to Washington.
“If the season was to start today and this is what I had [in terms of spring training workload],” Zimmerman said, “there’s not a doubt in my mind that I’m ready to go.”
Zimmerman said that while sitting on a back patio at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, as relaxed as ever, joking about the continued abuse he is taking for his alma mater, the University of Virginia, and its historic loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
He did not act like a man concerned about his status. He insisted he wasn’t waiting for some lingering problem to heal. He acted like a man who had finally found a way out of a rather unpleasant chore — which is, if everyone is to be believed, precisely what he is these days. Zimmerman has never been a fan of spring training, unafraid to share his long-standing belief that the whole thing was a lot longer than it needed to be. This year, he found a manager willing to experiment with him.
“When we started doing this, and me and Davey started talking, it was like, ‘What do you think?’ ” Zimmerman said. “I was like, ‘I’m always dealing with nagging stuff and doing all that throughout the past two or three years.’ He was like, ‘Hey, man, if you think you’re going to be ready, I’m not going to sit here and tell you how you need to be ready.’ ”
Zimmerman began taking at-bats in minor league games a few weeks ago and found that he enjoyed the experience. He could get plenty of at-bats against prospect-level pitching — as many in one day as he might in three Grapefruit League games — while not enduring the wear and tear of playing the field. For a man once troubled by plantar fasciitis who has been an everyday big leaguer since late in 2005, consensus holds that the less time he spends standing around in cleats, the better.
Zimmerman took to the infield with his teammates Tuesday. He has been hitting on the field with them for weeks. He has done extra hitting work with Kevin Long and extra fielding drills with Tim Bogar. He has not run on the field or on the bases as much as the other regulars, but Martinez said Zimmerman will do some first-to-third-type work this week.
The notion of his first in-game bursts from base to base, or in the field, coming in the late March Cincinnati chill is not a comfortable one, particularly given Zimmerman’s history with pulled muscles. But asked if he needs in-game experience to hone his stamina, Zimmerman brushed aside the thought.
“To be honest with you, not really. If I play three games and go 0-for-12, play three games and go 10-for-12 and made four diving plays, that gets me nothing on March 29,” Zimmerman said. “… Other people might be completely different, and I respect that. Some people might think I’m crazy for doing this, and I respect that, too. But at the end of the day it’s me that has to go out and play. And if I feel good, I feel good.”
And frankly, he feels good. Three rival scouts raved, unprompted, about the state of his swing when they saw him hit in those minor league games. Members of the Nationals front office just smile when asked what they see in Zimmerman back there.
“He’s hitting about .800 back there,” Martinez said Tuesday. Many of those at-bats came against young pitchers without experience at the higher levels, pitchers with good stuff but inconsistent command that allows more experienced hitters to sit on one pitch and rule out others.
Adam Eaton, Michael A. Taylor and even Bryce Harper have headed out to hit on those back fields, the former two because of injuries that required controlled work, the latter just to get at-bats. Other teams hold back stars in spring training, though not quite to this extent. The Rangers held veteran Adrian Beltre out until early March, for example. Zimmerman might not play until March 24.
In a younger clubhouse, one might worry that a veteran deciding against spring training action would set a resented or subversive example. No one in the Nationals clubhouse has been heard grumbling, and Zimmerman doesn’t think they feel the need. Harper, for example, has said he wants 50 or 60 at-bats every spring. Eaton wants as many at-bats as he can get before returning and opted to take many of them on the back fields.
“Most of them have their routines and it’s been successful for them. So I don’t think they really want to veer from their routine,” Zimmerman said. “They don’t really look at it as: ‘That guy’s lucky, he doesn’t have to play in games.’ ”
For now, Zimmerman seems to feel that way, the unexpected mastermind behind a great spring training experiment — the results of which will not be clear until Opening Day and beyond. If he is injured, and this is all a cover, he and the Nationals have covered their tracks like spies. But Zimmerman says he is not injured at all and is just trying keep it that way.
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