They don’t sell jerseys here like they used to, when the Washington Nationals were new. A prominent display at last weekend’s Winterfest featured telling mannequins: One wore a Bryce Harper jersey, another a Trea Turner, another the newest Nat, Adam Eaton. A giant Max Scherzer cutout stood between fans and the festivities, putting the Cy Young winner in the front of their minds.
The quiet absence of Harper, Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth — all of whom have won affection with Silver Sluggers, all-star selections and/or beards — was noticed by fans eager to see three favorites.
Ryan Zimmerman used to be a focal point at such events, when the Nationals just moved to the District and homegrown stars were few. He was the young star, the fan favorite, the one whose jerseys fans coveted. But Zimmerman is not the center of attention anymore.
The uncomfortable reality, the one the organization and its fans hope Zimmerman will blast away with a season of rejuvenation, is this: Washington owes him $46 million over the next three seasons, $64 million over the next four, if his option is picked up.
The Nationals are paying him to be a prime offensive producer at an elite offensive position, but for three seasons, he has fallen short of expectations. If Zimmerman, still at a strong baseball age of 32, can’t turn things around, the Nationals might have to pivot. But pivoting from an expensive organizational staple would be incredibly difficult and probably unpleasant.
Zimmerman doesn’t shy away from his recent failures. When he spoke this past weekend at Winterfest, for example, he brought up his contract without prompting.
“Three years and an option left on the contract I signed,” he said, “and I plan on living up to that contract, and performing how I’m supposed to perform.”
Zimmerman has neither stayed healthy, nor played particularly well, for the past three seasons. He averaged 90 games in each and hit .242. From 2006 to 2013, he never played fewer than 101 games, and his average was .284. He battled hamstring trouble in 2014, then foot and oblique trouble in 2015. He strained his left rib cage this summer, came back for a week and was hit by a pitch in the wrist that knocked him out again. Since 2014, he is 32nd in WAR among 36 major league first baseman with at least 1,000 plate appearances.
If Zimmerman had struggled for one season, the notion that he must play for his spot in the lineup would be ridiculous. When he was healthy in 2014, for example, he still hit .280. No cause for reasonable concern there.
When he was healthy in 2015, he hit .249 — not his usual, but that plantar fasciitis lingered. By then, this was a two-year blip, concerning, but not alarming.
Zimmerman played more games in 2016 than he did in either of those seasons. When he played, he hit .218. Only two players who made at least 450 plate appearances hit worse: Danny Espinosa and Derek Norris, who played in San Diego.
“I expect more out of myself than I think anyone expects out of me, so I was disappointed with what I did last year,” Zimmerman said. “But that’s the great thing about baseball: That was last year.”
The Nationals hope so, because with Wilson Ramos gone and left-handed Adam Eaton aboard, they need right-handed power. Take out Ramos and Espinosa, and the Nationals lose 31 right-handed home runs. Harper and Daniel Murphy hit left-handed pitching fairly well, and Rendon and Werth can hit for power when needed. A full year of Turner plus the 15-homer pop of Norris will help.
But the Nationals could need Zimmerman, who would break up Harper and Murphy well if he could find his swing and lengthen the lineup.
Because expectations are less conspicuous when met than when left unfulfilled, a bounce-back year from Zimmerman will probably not gain the same notice as another down season. Another season of struggles could force the Nationals to make a decision about the first franchise pillar in their history. Everyone feels it.
In his conference call a week or so after the Nationals lost another National League Division Series, General Manager Mike Rizzo went out of his way to declare Zimmerman the team’s first baseman entering spring training. Asked later in the offseason if a day might come when the Nationals would have to consider alternate plans at first, Rizzo was firm: Sure, that day might come, but it is not near.
Manager Dusty Baker, relentless in his determination to “expect good” and talk others into doing the same, said he thinks Zimmerman starting this season healthy will make all the difference. He has a point. By April 2015, Zimmerman was rounding first base gingerly because of plantar fasciitis. Last spring, he did not play until mid-March.
“He’s so far ahead of last year because he had that foot going into spring training,” Baker said last weekend. “I had to really program him, ask him how he was doing every day, start him out with two innings, three innings . . . . See, he’s way ahead of where he was in spring training.”
And for a streaky hitter such as Zimmerman, who readily admits he doesn’t usually hit his offensive stride until late in the summer, early at-bats matter a great deal. His swing has more moving parts than just about anyone in baseball. Syncing it up requires consistent at-bats. Consistent at-bats require consistent health. Zimmerman has not had that for the last two seasons.
His strikeout rate was up and his walk rate was down last year, and at times he looked as though he was jumping at pitches, somewhere in-between. Baker wishes he would swing more early in the count — as he did on the first pitch he saw after returning from the disabled list in Atlanta last year, the one he hit for a home run. Zimmerman skipped back to the dugout hollering after that swing, a rare display of emotion. His strikeout rate was higher than his career average last season, his walk rate lower, indicating Baker might be onto something in pointing out pitch selection.
But as has been pointed out in defense of Zimmerman, his average exit velocity was among the highest of any regular player last year. In other words, he never stopped hitting the ball hard.
Baker always called Zimmerman one of the Nationals’ “tough-luck” guys, a euphemism for “slumping player” that might nevertheless explain part of his production dip: A career .309 hitter on balls put in play, Zimmerman’s BABIP was .248 last season. Until then, the lowest BABIP of his career came in 2015, when he hit .268.
Normally, a low BABIP comes from either bad luck or bad contact. Given that exit velocity suggests Zimmerman is not making bad contact, one can reasonably believe part of his trouble is just bad luck. Streaky health does not help, either.
But soon, numbers like those will lose clout. Another bad start or lost season will make 3½ in a row, and push the Nationals closer to having to make a decision about what to do with their first baseman. For now, the plan is to give him another chance. There was a time when Zimmerman was the brightest star of this Nationals show. These days, he does not have to be, although for reasons financial and sentimental, the Nationals hope he will shine again soon. They are certainly not yet betting against it.