Jun 3, 2014, 5:57 PM EDT
Somewhere along the way during the seven weeks it took for Ryan Zimmerman to return from a fractured right thumb, the idea was proposed to the former Gold Glove third baseman that a position change would be in his best interest.
Zimmerman has played shortstop in the majors before for one game, as he did in college, and he has long considered moving over to first base due to his throwing issues.
This idea, however, was a little outside the box. You could say – if you’re a fan of bad jokes – that it came from left field.
Would Zimmerman, who was once considered among the best defensive third basemen in baseball, take a couple hundred steps back and play left field? The 29-year-old also known as the ‘Face of the Franchise’ admitted he didn’t know what to think at first.
“At first just like anything you are a little hesitant. You don’t want to learn a new position, you don’t want to do things like that,” he said. “It was not comfortable at first. But the more I worked at it and the more we talked, the more I realized how it made sense for the team and the organization. Then it was an easy decision.”
Zimmerman has endured a well-documented struggle at third base over the last three seasons. The glove skills never left, but injuries and confidence issues affected his ability to throw across the diamond.
Sometimes Zimmerman would look like his old self and fire strikes right into the first baseman’s mit. Other times, however, he would skip or sail them for costly errors.
Part of Zimmerman’s acceptance of the change comes from those frustrating mistakes.
“The last few years at third have been tough for me. Mentally, physically, I’ve had to really grind it out. It’s been tough. To learn something new, to go out there and have fun and play ball again is refreshing, I guess.”
Really, though, what it comes down to is Zimmerman’s willingness to help his team. Being back in the lineup is the most important factor for him. The fact he’s not playing third is a secondary concern.
“Any other guy in this room would do whatever it takes to win and I think all of us realize that you don’t have unlimited amounts of years to have a team like we have right now. The goal is to win and win as many games as we can. Get to the playoffs and try to do something special. This gives us the best chance to do that.”
Zimmerman – who will be playing with Jayson Werth’s outfielders glove – will essentially be learning on the job. He played left field at Single-A Potomac in a rehab assignment, but wasn’t tested defensively as much as he hoped. Fortunate for him, he has one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball to help him out.
“I’ll just keep an extra eye on him,” Denard Span said. “I’ll make sure that when I’m shifting over, he’s coming with me. We kind of talked about communication out there a little earlier today, about when he should call the ball and when he shouldn’t call the ball. I’m pretty sure I’m just going to have to remind him about when to back up bases, little things that since he isn’t an outfielder it might slip his mind. I’m sure something new will come up and I’ll be there to help him out.”
Span is willing to help in large part because he sees the sacrifice Zimmerman is making as a teammate.
“He has an open mind towards it which I think is a good attitude to have,” Span said. “I know a lot of guys that probably wouldn’t want to do what he’s doing. I hope you guys are praising him in the press because that takes a very humble and selfless-type person to move over from a position where he was a Gold Glover to try to help this team.”
Span said he expects Zimmerman to be nervous, and admits it will be strange to look over to his right and see the former All-Star. Once the game starts, however, he doesn’t foresee any major issues with having a novice playing next to him.
“I’ve played with some bad outfielders, so that’s why honestly I’m not too worried. I’ve played with some guys who had no business being in the outfield that were out there,” Span said.
“He’s a good athlete. I’ve played with guys who were first base and DHs and they threw them out there in right field. I had to play center and right field. I don’t think that’s the case here.”
The question now for Zimmerman becomes whether the move is temporary or permanent. Bryce Harper is scheduled to return sometime in early July and will need a position to play. Zimmerman will play the majority of his games for now in left until Harper comes back. Then, everything could change.
“The thoughts about when Bryce comes back is that he’ll go back to left field and Zim will come back to the infield. That’s the initial thought. We have to see how everything goes, we just can’t say at this point,” manager Matt Williams said.
“We’ll make adjustments from a day-to-day basis. Whether we have to move him back in the infield for a couple of innings or if he gets a start at third or gets a start at first, that will kind of be a day by day thing.”
Williams made it clear there is nothing permanent about Zimmerman moving to left field… at least not yet.
“We want to clarify it’s not a position change… I wouldn’t classify it as a position change,” he said. “I think he’s a third baseman who’s been pressed into duty to play the outfield.”
Conducting an experiment such as this in a live, regular season baseball game is not an ideal situation. But given the Nationals’ current roster structure and recent problems scoring runs, they have to explore their options.
Zimmerman could very well stand out in left field in a bad way and struggle to learn the position. The Nationals, however, will be patient with the transition.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Williams said. “We’re willing to except all that comes with him going out there and the little experience that he does have. What’s most important is that he’s back.”
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