Given all the heroes on hand for the Washington Nationals Winterfest, the players’ lot along the first base line filled with a few shiny, high-end vehicles. Walking past, though, you had to wonder: If Ryan Zimmerman drove up and pulled out his old ID from the only company for which he has ever worked, would the gate rise to let him in?
“The business of baseball is kind of funny sometimes,” said Scherzer, whose good old No. 31 jersey was affixed with a World Series champs patch on the right sleeve. “That’s where we’re all kind of numb to it sometimes.”
It’s hard for fans to be numb to that business when it means that Anthony Rendon, as important a piece as there was last October, would only be at a Winterfest if it was in Anaheim, Calif., wearing an Angels uniform. But putting Rendon aside — yes, I understand that’s hard to do — the Nationals have spent the winter bringing the band back together, which warms the hearts of those 10,000 or so folks who walked through the gates to not see a pitch thrown or a bat swung. Just to soak it all in.
… wait, Zim hasn’t signed?
“Love him,” said the man who matters in this case, General Manager Mike Rizzo.
Rizzo said he spent 90 minutes with Zimmerman this week. Zimmerman sat in his office. They chatted about the future. But — on this day that it made sense to break some news, given all the good feelings at the ballpark in January — any news to break, Mike?
“I have no news,” Rizzo said, “except that it’s 70 degrees in Washington, D.C., on January 11.”
Ladies and gentlemen, Mike Rizzo, meteorologist.
This isn’t to be an alarmist — at all — because if I’m taking sides on whether Ryan Zimmerman suits up for the Nationals in 2020, I say, “I sure think so.” The first draft pick of the Nats leads the franchise in games, hits, homers, RBI, runs, doubles — on and on. He hit the first World Series homer for the franchise — and don’t sleep on how important that solo shot off Houston ace Gerrit Cole was, a steadying blow that gave the Nats confidence in Game 1, back when they trailed 2-0.
“Someday,” Rizzo said, “there’ll be a statue with his likeness on it in center field.”
Someday, like, April? No.
The Nationals essentially have the team with which they’ll head to spring training. Their interest in veteran free agent Josh Donaldson to replace the departed Rendon at third base was real, as was their $100 million offer. But logic tells anyone that the additions of infielders Kendrick and Cabrera, both from the 2019 champs, as well as newcomers Starlin Castro and Eric Thames mean both the money and the plate appearances are dwindling. Where would Donaldson, who played 155 games for the Atlanta Braves last season, fit?
Answer: He wouldn’t. Zimmerman would.
“I don’t think he’s mentally or physically ready to be done yet,” reliever Sean Doolittle said. “I think he’s got some good baseball left in him. . . . Just think of what he means to this organization and this city.”
That’s why this case is different, and why it has been different since the offseason began. But there is a baseball element to it, too. So let’s get to it.
Kendrick, as big a postseason hero as the Nats have, will get some of the at-bats at first base. Thames, the left-handed complement with an .851 on-base-plus-slugging percentage last season in Milwaukee, will get plenty there, plus perhaps in a corner outfield spot from time to time.
But the Nats believe Kendrick’s time must be managed, and managed significantly. He’s good for 300 to 350 plate appearances. “He’ll tell you that’s it,” one Nats official said, “and if you push him more, he’ll tell you by blowing something out.”
The hallmark of these Nats, then, is going to be flexibility and versatility. With Castro, Cabrera, Kendrick and Thames, there are parts that can move among first, second and third. Zimmerman, at 35, is a lifetime removed from his 22-year-old self, when he played 162 games and had 722 plate appearances. (Man, that 2007 team was — how to put this? — not very good.) But that’s not what the Nats would ask him to do, either. They know that for six years, as he has worked through all manner of injuries, he has averaged almost exactly half that: 364 plate appearances per season.
And if he’s healthy for those plate appearances — as he was when he returned for September of last year and produced an .817 OPS — well, they expect production. The average National League first baseman had an OPS of .812 last year. No reason a 35-year-old Zim couldn’t be at least average over half a season’s worth of work. Use him heavily against lefties, against which he had a .966 OPS last year, and all the better.
“He’s still got it,” Doolittle said.
So, why don’t the Nats have him — yet?
He was, of course, just being realistic. The club had an $18 million option for the 2020 season at the end of his last contract — and he didn’t, for one moment, think they would pick it up. What they could do: Come up with a reasonable, respectful salary — $3 million? $4 million? — and stack the deal with incentives based on plate appearances, more for 300 times up, more for 400 times up, still more for 500 times up. If he’s playing, it’s because he’s two things, healthy and productive. The money will be well spent.
Spring training is a month away. The Nats’ band — their championship-winning band — is almost all back together. (Sorry, Anthony.) There’s one more move to make, and then we’ll see you all in West Palm Beach, Fla. Hope it happens. Soon.