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Ryan Zimmerman wants to play. The Nats need first basemen. But it’s not so simple.

Ryan Zimmerman is again part of a wide swath of options for the Nationals at first base. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Unlike last offseason, when the Washington Nationals and Ryan Zimmerman were on another collision course, Mike Rizzo now sees first base as a way to upgrade his offense significantly. It already was notable that the general manager named specific positions — corner outfield, too — while stating “our plans going forward are to get the best bat that we can.” But that also could alter one of the Nationals’ fundamental roster strategies, throwing ­Zimmerman into a fresh game of musical chairs.

First base has long been shared in Washington. Zimmerman, Howie Kendrick and Matt Adams filled it in 2019. In 2020, before Zimmerman opted out because of coronavirus concerns, the planned committee was him, Kendrick and Eric Thames. Thames, a free agent after a lone season with the Nationals, had replaced Adams as the left-handed power bat. And now the position is open again.

Rizzo has typically paired Zimmerman with a left-handed batter. In recent years, Kendrick joined the formula as a right-handed-hitting infielder in a late-career surge. But if Rizzo plans to spend big on a first baseman — or even trade for a full-time starter — it could leave just one bench spot for Zimmerman or Kendrick. Zimmerman intends to play next year, he confirmed to The Washington Post on Friday. Kendrick does, too, and Rizzo has said he would love to bring him back in the “right role.”

This is where it gets complicated.

“You could kind of split the position up like we’ve done at catcher for the last couple years, successfully, and attack the first base position that way,” Rizzo said on a video conference call with reporters Tuesday. “Or go out and get yourself a legitimate 158-game, everyday first baseman and do it that way. It depends on the supply and the demand of that position and the players with those skill sets.”

Zimmerman, 36, has been with the Nationals since their first season in Washington. When he was mulling retirement in December 2019, he told reporters it was “either play some more here or play some more golf.” That didn’t leave him much leverage. He signed a one-year, $2 million deal in the weeks before spring training.

By that point, Kendrick had re-signed for one year and $6.5 million. Thames was on board, too. The difference now is that the Nationals may add a first baseman to play every day. They also aren’t planning to have a designated hitter in 2021, somewhat slimming the need for bench offense.

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They pursued switch hitter Carlos Santana before he signed a two-year, $17.5 million contract with the Kansas City Royals, according to two people with knowledge of Santana’s free agency. Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Josh Bell has been regularly floated as a trade candidate, though not specifically to the Nationals. Former Chicago Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber is on the Nationals’ radar, according to people with knowledge of their plans, and could move to first if Washington was wary of his defense. After that, free agents such as Mitch Moreland, Travis Shaw, Jake Lamb, Justin Smoak and C.J. Cron are far better suited for a platoon.

This is mostly hot stove conjecture. Corner outfield, on the other hand, shows much clearer paths for Rizzo to boost the offense. George Springer, Michael Brantley, Marcell Ozuna, Joc Pederson and Eddie Rosario are on the market, among others. Should the Nationals go in that direction, it becomes much more likely that they go piecemeal at first base. In turn, a reunion with Zimmerman or Kendrick — or both — gets even more logical. Or the Nationals may see Zimmerman, their original franchise cornerstone, as a viable, low-cost backup no matter what.

“We’ve been talking to them for 10 years, so there’s no need to have a personal meeting,” Rizzo said last December when asked about discussions with Zimmerman. “They know where our heart lies, and we know where their heart lies.”

This may be the most important dynamic at play: Zimmerman has long made it clear he wants to play in Washington and nowhere else. It was only a year ago that his free agency was a binary choice of rejoining the Nationals or retiring. Another one-year deal in the $2 million range includes little to no risk on the team’s end. It could take less money this time around.

The Nationals just have to decide whether there is room for Zimmerman at this stage of a 15-year career. He’s a part-time player with an injury history who, when healthy, has production left. He also has been with the club through its early years in Washington, the opening of Nationals Park, a World Series title and everything in between. That counted enough last spring. It should soon be clear if that has changed.

Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.

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