At 36, Zimmerman will back up Josh Bell and provide a right-handed bat off Manager Dave Martinez’s bench. He signed for one year and $2 million last January before opting out of the season because of coronavirus concerns. Then he became a free agent for the second straight winter and only the second time in his 15-year career.
But once the Nationals traded for Bell on Christmas Eve, sending pitchers Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean to the Pittsburgh Pirates, a Zimmerman reunion was all the more logical. Bell, a switch hitter, is notably better from the left side and can struggle against lefties. Zimmerman, however, has crushed lefties across his past three seasons. That includes a .966 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against them in 53 plate appearances in 2019. And going back a bit, it includes a 1.038 OPS in 143 plate appearances against them in 2017.
The sample sizes vary because of Zimmerman’s frequent injuries. Zimmerman, whose deal was first reported by USA Today, appeared in more than 100 games in two of his past six seasons. Health issues have kept him from fully realizing the potential Washington saw before signing him to a six-year, $100 million extension in 2012. But in 2017, his last full season, Zimmerman was an all-star and finished 20th in National League MVP voting. He and the club have long maintained that he has some offense left.
He has been the one constant of baseball’s second run in Washington. At first, Zimmerman led bad teams with little promise. He hit a walk-off homer in the first game at Nationals Park in 2008. He was there to welcome Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth — and Max Scherzer after that. He helped kick-start a decade-long hunt for titles.
That hunt, of course, culminated in a World Series championship in 2019. Zimmerman fittingly clocked the first World Series home run in Nationals history. He hit the market thereafter, available to all teams, but pledged to return with the Nationals or play a lot of golf. The team took those hard-line negotiations and signed him to a low-cost, one-year deal. Then it repeated that Friday, for half the price, to put one of the final touches on its 26-man roster. A second catcher and a reliever or two are still on its to-do list.
The Nationals have typically paired Zimmerman with a left-handed backup. Matt Adams, Adam Lind and Eric Thames, among others, have all filled that spot. But now, as a complement to Bell, Zimmerman should start sporadically and pinch-hit often. He is a stronger first baseman than Bell, even if Zimmerman’s arm has lagged in recent years. And Zimmerman could get even more at-bats if the NL adopts the designated hitter.
In December, both Martinez and General Manager Mike Rizzo said they were planning for the NL not to have the DH in 2021. That’s a double-edged scenario for Zimmerman. No DH would mean one fewer lineup spot for Zimmerman or another reserve. But it also means Zimmerman could be very valuable as a pinch hitter, whether in the pitcher’s spot or to spell Bell or Kyle Schwarber against a lefty late in the game.
Schwarber, acquired in January to play left field, hits left-handed and had a lot of trouble with lefties in a down 2020. Bell’s numbers and his splits took a similar dip in the shortened season. Both are bounce-back candidates, in the Nationals’ view, but Zimmerman could still prop them up. He just would have to in a smaller role.
Zimmerman has a five-year personal services contract that will pay him $2 million annually when he retires. For now, though, the Nationals decided to pay him to play for them rather than not. He thus gives Martinez a familiar and needed chess piece.
Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.