CINCINNATI — For weeks, Ryan Zimmerman and his bosses insisted his prolonged absence from Grapefruit League games was nothing to worry about, that he was healthy and would be in the Nationals’ Opening Day lineup. And for weeks, they were met with increasing skepticism from the outside, from observers who refused to believe Zimmerman, whose injury history is extensive, wasn’t dealing with an ailment of some sort. The suspicion climaxed Tuesday when Zimmerman didn’t play in the Nationals’ exhibition game in Washington. He finished the exhibition slate with two at-bats in one game. It was a radical approach.
Well, after all that, Zimmerman was in the Nationals’ Opening Day lineup against the Cincinnati Reds on Friday. The two-time all-star played first base and batted fourth behind Bryce Harper, finishing 0 for 4 with five men left on base but driving in the game’s first run in Washington’s 2-0 win. The question now becomes whether not playing in live major league games, instead of hitting in minor league games on the backfields, had a negative effect. His early production will inevitably be scrutinized.
“He’s ready. He’s itching to go,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “I know nobody saw him, but he worked really hard this spring, and it worked out. We’re excited that he’s in there.”
As for the rest of the lineup, the biggest deviation from projections was Trea Turner batting sixth. Turner began last season hitting second before Adam Eaton suffered his season-ending knee injury in late April. He then moved to the leadoff spot for the remainder of the season in Eaton’s absence. The external consensus was he would return to batting second this season — and it’s just one game so that could still happen — but Anthony Rendon batted in that slot Friday.
“I like him there because he’s a pure hitter,” Martinez said. “He doesn’t have to worry about getting on base. He has to just worry about hitting. If he gets his walks, great. But I want him just worrying about hitting the ball, get on base, cause havoc.
With Rendon in the two-hole, the configuration appears to be analytics-driven. New-age metrics suggest a team’s best hitter should bat second. Though Bryce Harper likely holds that title for Washington, an argument for Rendon, who finished fifth in the NL MVP vote last season, could be made.
“For me, you don’t want to get to the end of the game and have one of your best hitters on-deck and not get a chance to get up,” Martinez said. “So it’s trying to get him that extra at-bat.”
Rendon batted sixth much of last season and has accumulated a 1.003 OPS in 1068 career plate appearances. But he has more career plate appearances as the two-hitter — 1,174 — than anywhere else. He’s compiled .744 OPS in the spot. Whether order placement has much of an effect on production is up for debate. Martinez apparently thinks it doesn’t in Rendon’s case.
As was expected by the end of spring training, Howie Kendrick will start at second base over Wilmer Difo for the injured Daniel Murphy. He’ll bat fifth. The rest of the lineup doesn’t include any surprises. Eaton makes his return as the leadoff man, but in left field as Jayson Werth’s successor; Michael A. Taylor, Eaton’s replacement in center, will bat seventh; and Matt Wieters will hit eighth. Max Scherzer will toe the rubber and bat ninth, which may not be where the starting pitcher bats on some days.
Martinez mentioned he spent time toying with different lineup variations, mostly centered on whether Eaton would be available or not. He has said his lineups will change based on data, matchups, and human factors. So reading too much into this starting nine probably isn’t wise. But it’s a look at how Martinez, his coaching staff, and the front office is thinking for the first of 162, which is something.
“These things are not set in stone,” Martinez said. “You may see something different. But I like the way we’re set up right now. Hopefully, the guys up top get us going, but if not, hopefully the guys in the middle and in the bottom can create a different dimension to our game.”
Adam Eaton LF
Anthony Rendon 3B
Bryce Harper RF
Ryan Zimmerman 1B
Howie Kendrick 2B
Trea Turner SS
Michael A. Taylor CF
Matt Wieters C
Max Scherzer RHP
Jesse Winker LF
Eugenio Suarez 3B
Joey Votto 1B
Scooter Gennett 2B
Scott Schebler RF
Jose Peraza SS
Homer Bailey RHP
Billy Hamilton CF