On Ryan Zimmerman and Third Base

Michael Young switched positions three times; Chipper Jones moved to left field in 2002 and back to third in 2004; Albert Pujols did not have a set position until 2004; Miguel Cabrera just switched positions for the fourth time in his career. There is a long list of very accomplished players who have moved because their team or career depended on it. Ryan Zimmerman will soon join that list, and will be better for it. Zimmerman committed his first error of the season (a routine throw to first base in the third inning) during the first game of the season in New York. While it was disconcerting as Zimmerman struggled with his throwing in 2013, it did not sound any alarms.

Those alarms went off full-blast when Zimmerman was removed from last Saturday’s game versus the Atlanta Braves in the sixth inning when he complained of shoulder pain after committing another throwing error that allowed Andrelton Simmons to reach base on what should have been a routine out. While the fallout from Zimmerman’s absence (he only has one at-bat since Saturday) has been relatively subdued, it is no less alarming and changes how Zimmerman and the Nationals should plan for his future.

Zimmerman is in the first year of his six-year extension and remains one of the franchise’s centerpiece players, so any notion that he can, or will, be traded are misconceived. Players like Zimmerman are awarded long-term extensions because their general manager and ownership agree to support them when they suffer lumps in their career such as the one he is currently dealing with; he has reached a point at his career where the Nationals will accommodate his interests with equal consequence as the rest of the organization.

That does not change that the Nationals have a serious dilemma for the remainder of the season. Plans to eventually move Zimmerman to first base were actualized last offseason when manager Matt Williams told Zimmerman to purchase a first base glove and to anticipate playing roughly 15 games at the position this year. But incumbent first baseman Adam Laroche’s hot start this season has quieted those plans. A free agent next year, the likelihood of Laroche’s return is all-but-nonexistent now that Zimmerman’s condition is known, but the possibility for a big year has not stopped the Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell from writing that the Nationals should still consider trading him midseason to move Zimmerman across the diamond.

This all assumes Zimmerman can no longer play third base. Revising his announcement Monday that Zimmerman has arthritis, Williams said that he has a degenerative shoulder condition. Zimmerman is not going on the disabled list, and will rejoin the lineup Wednesday night. Because it is his right shoulder, he should still be able to hit, and has not demonstrated any difficulty doing so early in the season. The problem is his defense, which has ranged from sneaky-bad to abhorrent. Even when Zimmerman cut down on the throwing errors in the second half of 2013, his mechanics remained heavily flawed and his arm strength missing, problems that have resurfaced even though the Nationals claimed he would be able to rebuild his throwing strength after a healthy off-season.

Williams announced that Zimmerman is working on yet another change to his mechanics, but even if it restores his arm-strength, there is little doubt he will be playing first base by 2015. Similar to Boston’s Mike Napoli, who has a degenerative hip condition, the Nationals will need to build a regimen around preserving Zimmerman’s shoulder as long as possible. That means no unnecessary wear and tear: less batting practice, fewer pre-game grounders, and eventually, not throwing across the diamond. A degenerative shoulder is different from a structural injury like Danny Espinosa’s torn rotator cuff, which healed itself with time. Years of playing third base have taken its toll on Zimmerman’s body; it will be relevant for the rest of his career and will likely affect his quality of life after his playing days are over.

None of this means the Nationals are in imminent danger. Zimmerman has still been able to hit for power despite his shoulder problems. Napoli, who was diagnosed before the 2013 season, had one of the best years of his career and received a three-year extension from the Red Sox headed into his age-32 season.

Criticism of the plan to move Zimmerman to first base stems from the notion that he is less valuable at a position with more depth around the league. However, Zimmerman’s offensive numbers would still have been top-10 at first base in 2013, and it stands to reason his offense would improve from playing the less strenuous position. That criticism also unfairly assumes Zimmerman would be a liability at first base. Zimmerman is as athletic as anyone who has covered first for Washington in its 10-year history, and 97 of his 135 career errors (72 percent) have been throwing errors. Moving him to first means less throwing and fewer assists; reducing the strain on his shoulder and not only improve his defensive numbers (he has committed the third most errors in baseball since 2012) but making him an overall more valuable player.

While Zimmerman is in better position now than he was this time last year, when he committed 10 errors in nine games leading to 11 unearned runs and a 2-7 team record, the baseball gods have told him his days at third are numbered. The Nationals and Laroche have a $15 million mutual option for 2015, his age-35 season. If declined, Zimmerman will earn only $1.6 million more to play first base in his age-30 season. At first base, he will rarely have to throw the ball and the Nationals will likely configure their defense so he does not receive the ball on cut-off plays from the outfield.

While moving to first base likely will eclipse his value as a star player, it is necessary for the team to remain competitive long-term. There is no reason he cannot be a Gold-Glove caliber player at first base, or at least be trusted on defense again; at third, he is a liability and in decline.

© 2016 Citizens of Natstown