He is only 33, a veteran but hardly aged. He is due to make $14 million this year and $18 million in 2019, so he is a star that fans come to see play even in spring training. Last year, he was healthy enough to hit 36 homers with 108 RBI and bat .303.
Most important, throughout spring training, he was in near-mint condition. We talked several times, in February and in mid-March, about how great he felt and what a wonderful idea it was — for him — to skip spring training games and how much he appreciated rookie Manager Dave Martinez letting him do so.
“If you didn’t have to do that stuff, why would you do that stuff?” Zimmerman told me Tuesday.
What is “that stuff,” exactly? And why should Zimmerman be excused from it?
Zimmerman has chronic shoulder and foot issues that have ruined big chunks of seasons and required surgeries. “It’s not the age; it’s the mileage,” he said.
What makes his injuries flare up? In the case of his plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of a thick band of tissues on the bottom of his foot that connects the heel bone to the toes, the old injury can be reawakened — making playing impossible until cured by weeks of rest — by several familiar baseball actions.
They include taking leads, breaking whenever a hitter makes contact and running the bases full speed, even on a “routine” play, such as scoring from second base on a single. Also, standing at first base, shifting his 225 pounds and rising on his toes on every pitch, anticipating a batted ball, stresses that part of the foot. Zimmerman can do those things 1,000 times and feel nothing. Then the 1,001st time, he feels discomfort. Here we go again. Pain management, maybe the disabled list.
His right shoulder, which took years to heal as much as it finally did, is endangered by, among other things, diving to field balls, sliding headfirst into a base or diving back headfirst on a pickoff throw. Again, it’s the 1,001st time that gets him, and he never knows when that might be. He’s always playing the odds.
Hitting doesn’t bother him. Or not much. But he must hit to get ready for the season. If the shoulder or heel is aggravated, those are the breaks.
So all spring he has been hitting against minor leaguers, throwing full speed, in simulated games on back fields. That’s usually a luxury reserved for players returning from injury, such as Adam Eaton. Zimmerman just made it his norm, sometimes getting eight at-bats a day when, in an exhibition game, he might have gotten two or three. Run the bases? Field? Forget about it.
“Zim had six hits today [against pitchers throwing in the 90s],” General Manager Mike Rizzo said one day this month. “You just didn’t see ’em ’cause they weren’t in a game.”
Why can’t Zim just go-along-to-get-along and play in exhibition games but “jake it” on the bases and in the field?
“Pro athletes are not good at doing 75 percent. We don’t know what that is,” Zimmerman said. “In the moment, instinct takes over, and you just play full speed.”
This isn’t just about Zimmerman. It’s about almost every veteran player of stature who hates spring training, has chronic injuries and would love a spring training with zero exhibitions and zero road trips. Just go to the training facility, do what you think you need to do to be fit for Opening Day. Then go home. Why didn’t anybody think of this for, like, most of a century?
“That’s true,” Zimmerman said when asked whether, in fact, most veterans have multiple chronic injuries not so different from his. “When I was Bryce Harper’s age, I’d basically never been injured. But that changes.”
Zimmerman is not only doing what hundreds of big leaguers have wanted to do, with justifiable reasons, but he is also being honest about it. And that stumps everybody. “He must be injured,” many have said because nobody nixes every exhibition game because they think the games are irrelevant or possibly harmful.
What team would allow it? Well, the Nats. Zimmerman asked Martinez, who is open to novel approaches, for permission, and the rookie manager said, “Okay.”
“[Martinez] has full trust in us to do what we need to do to be ready for the season,” Zimmerman said. “I feel great. Awesome.”
Stop being logical! Somebody might overhear you.
Zimmerman’s spring has extra spin because of the growing hostility between players and owners. In recent months, salary assumptions have been flipped. Young players are now valued highly, but anybody past 30 is depreciated like a used car headed toward the junkyard. Players such as Jayson Werth, 38, and Adam Lind, 34, have only recently been given minor league deals. That means: Show up and, if you look good, maybe we’ll give you a big league roster spot at very low pay.
In such a hardball atmosphere, are established players going to care whether an owner’s exhibition product gets watered down by stars skipping games? Two weeks ago, several friends and I went to a Nats game, and we paid $34 a ticket to sit five rows from the top on the first base side. That’s not a throwaway ticket price. We didn’t miss Zimmerman. But he may be setting an interesting precedent.
Does Zimmerman understand why people are so interested in what he is not doing? “Yeah, there’s nothing else to talk about,” he said, wryly.
How will his voluntary sit-out be viewed?
“Depends on what I’m hitting on May 1,” he said, chuckling.
There’s one final twist. Zimmerman has an $18 million team option for the 2020 season. Not long ago, if he kept producing, the Nats might have picked it up. With the game’s new economics, that probability has shrunk to near zero in a blink.
In two years, if Zimmerman’s production slips, he may find himself at 35 in the same spot as Werth, Mark Reynolds (30 homers) and Lind were this spring — unsigned, forced toward retirement or trying to make a team like a walk-on.
If he has only two more years of guaranteed baseball, then Zimmerman owes it to his teammates, his franchise’s title chances and himself to have the two most productive seasons he can muster. Maximize 2018 and 2019. That is all.
Come next spring, if Zimmerman has a good 2018, we’ll know where to find him. Not in exhibition games but hitting in simulated games on those back fields.
Did a nice little revolt just start? And who thought that Zimmerman, the University of Virginia gentleman, might ignite it?