Apr 8, 2014, 6:00 AM EDT
It’s been three days since Ryan Zimmerman last took his position in the field for the Nationals, departing abruptly after his latest attempt to throw the ball across the diamond sailed over Adam LaRoche’s head with minimal velocity and maximum awkwardness.
Since then, Zimmerman has had a chance to rest. He has had his right shoulder examined by doctors. He has learned the results of an MRI test, which revealed no structural damage to the shoulder, only inflammation. He appeared in Sunday’s game, only as a pinch-hitter, and like the rest of his teammates enjoyed an off-day Monday.
All of which has only delayed the inevitable question that will arise later today, before the Nationals arrive at the ballpark to open a three-game series against the Marlins: Now what?
Zimmerman isn’t being placed on the disabled list. At least, the Nats have given no indication to this point he will. But neither have they said he’s good to go. Would they really just place him back at third base tonight, as though none of this ever happened?
There doesn’t appear to be a right answer to this dilemma. And make no mistake, it’s a real dilemma, with both short-term and long-term implications.
In the short-term, the Nationals must figure out how to navigate their way through the next 156 games. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which Zimmerman doesn’t play a large chunk of those games at third base, unless he’s shut down and has another surgery on the shoulder. (Which wouldn’t seem necessary if there’s no structural damage, right?)
But can the Nats take their chances with Zimmerman as their third baseman nearly every night for the next 5 3/4 months? In some respects, they were awfully lucky to make it through five games with him needing to attempt only two “routine” throws to first base. Both, of course, resulted in ugly errors. The odds of him needing to attempt only two of those throws per week are miniscule.
But if he’s not at third base, where is he? The easy answer is to simply convert him to first base right now, but there’s nothing easy about that at all. For one thing, LaRoche already occupies that position and through the season’s first week has played quite well both offensively and defensively. And for anyone who suggests the Nationals could simply trade LaRoche, what exactly could be expected in return for an aging veteran coming off a bad year, from a team everybody in baseball knows would be desperate to move him?
There also seems to be a misconception that Zimmerman’s transition to first base would be smooth. It wouldn’t be. Remember, he has owned a first baseman’s mitt for all of two months and he has spent all of two innings in a Grapefruit League game there. Also, last time anyone checked, first basemen do have to throw baseballs overhand on a somewhat regular basis.
So, in the short-term, there doesn’t appear to be any getting around the fact that Zimmerman is going to have to continue playing third base to some extent. The Nationals can have him start in place of LaRoche on occasion. They can use him as DH in their 10 interleague games in AL parks. But they can’t keep him away from third base altogether, not unless they’re comfortable with one of their best hitters getting only 200 plate appearances over the full season.
In the long-term, it’s simply impossible to believe Zimmerman can remain at third base. With LaRoche’s contract expiring at season’s end, first base will become open in 2015. The Nationals have several intriguing prospects who could make a case for that position (most notably Matt Skole and Tyler Moore) but the spot is going to have to be held for Zimmerman, who is under contract through 2019 at an average of $15 million per season.
While that is the safe and most likely course of action, it’s also not ideal by any stretch. If first base is locked up for another five seasons, the Nationals lose all kinds of lineup and defensive flexibility for years to come.
That, though, is a matter for another day. Right now, there is a far more pressing question: Where will Zimmerman be tonight? And if the answer is third base: What can possibly be expected from him?
These aren’t the questions the Nationals — or any major-league club — wants to be forced to answer right now.
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