It seems that the Washington Nationals are finally about to recognize what’s been glaringly obvious for over a season now: Ryan Zimmerman can no longer play third base.
The emergence of Anthony Rendon has helped, to be sure. Rendon, 23, was a Rice University standout taken sixth overall by the Nationals in 2011; the knocks on his health were substantial — he had a serious history of ankle injuries that continued with a serious sprain of his left ankle in 2012 with Class A Potomac — but the upside was a polished, near-ready hitter who could contribute every day, and be expected to perform as well as a regular – or even an All-Star. And so far in 2014, Rendon has put up 181 PA of 109 OPS+ baseball and played well at his natural position at the hot corner while Zimmerman recuperates from a broken thumb. It’s much easier to sell moving an established fan favorite off his position if there’s a new fan favorite coming into replace him, and Rendon fits that bill.
Zimmerman’s woes extend far beyond the thumb, of course; anyone who has watched him play the last few seasons has been able to almost visibly track the degradation of his throwing ability, mainly stemming from an arthritic right shoulder that required surgery after the 2012 season and has needed constant maintenance rest since. Zimmerman’s throwing mechanics have been in the gutter for well over a season, and he needs to go to a place on the diamond where his arm will not be tested nearly as often.
In the past I’ve argued for that place on the diamond to be second base. The Nationals have no clear solution there with Rendon moved over to third, and none of the alternatives — Danny Espinosa, Kevin Frandsen or Scott Hairston (yes, that Scott Hairston) — inspiring much confidence as everyday players in 2014. It appears that ship has sailed for whatever reason — either the Nationals think Zimmerman’s range has fallen off as sharply as his arm has or neither he nor the team are interested in him playing up the middle after a career spent at the corners — and the two realistic options in front of Zimmerman are first base… and leftfield.
Zimmerman took a number of reps at first base during spring training, but nothing really came of the extra practice because the Nationals already have an established first baseman in Adam LaRoche, whose .925 OPS easily paces the team. Leftfield, however, is a place the Nationals need help at the moment: Bryce Harper is out until sometime in July with a hand injury that needs surgery, and the Nate McLouth signing that was so highly touted this offseason — McLouth had spent the past two years as a league average-ish starting leftfielder for the Baltimore Orioles — has so far been a dud (McLouth has managed just a .460 OPS through 78 PA). So it is not a surprise, perhaps, that Zimmerman has been seen with an outfielder’s mitt hanging around in left during batting practice doing outfield drills two days in a row now.
Believe the Nationals when they say they are not considering permanently moving Zimmerman to left: that position is Harper’s, and it will be Harper’s once again when he gets back unless the Nationals want to fool around with “Bryce Harper, Centerfielder” again. The number of places for an aging, expensive National League third baseman who can no longer throw to play on the diamond starts at two or three and narrows down to just about zero when the everyday leftfielder and first baseman are two of the best hitters on the club. The future may already be more or less written on the wall: Zimmerman is a National at least through 2019, however, and his bat can certainly carry first base, while LaRoche’s current contract could be up at the end of the season should the Nationals decline a $15 million mutual option (or if LaRoche does, for that matter, should he continue hitting like this). Zimmerman’s future into his 30s has to be at first base since he’s on a team with no designated hitter, Anthony Rendon and Bryce Harper. For the rest of 2014, though, who knows where he might end up?