What, Exactly, Is Going On With Ryan Zimmerman’s Health?

Ryan Zimmerman was productive when healthy but... (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

By Chelsea Janes Chelsea Janes Reporter covering the Washington Nationals Email Bio Follow >

Since the beginning of the 2017 season, Ryan Zimmerman owns the fourth-best OPS among major league first baseman. Paul Goldschmidt is first. Freddie Freeman is second. Joey Votto is third. Anyone assessing the state of the Nationals, told their first baseman is one of the top four producers in the majors by that commonly used stat, would think they are happy with that position. But of course, the Nationals never seem completely happy with much of anything because everything around them always seems to have a catch.

In this case, the catch is that Zimmerman only ranks in the top four when one sets the minimum plate appearances low enough for him to qualify — 700 over the last two years. He would not have enough plate appearances to qualify under normal statistical practice because in 2018, Zimmerman played fewer games (85) than he has in any season since 2014.

This is the trouble with Zimmerman, who proved rumors of his baseball death were greatly exaggerated when he reemerged as an all-star producer in 2017, but who could not stay healthy in 2018. Once a reliable everyday presence, Zimmerman has transformed into an annual planning nightmare — the guy the Nationals always want to have a spot when he is right, but who isn’t right often enough that they can afford to proceed without a Plan B.

Those backup plans have worked wonders in recent years. Adam Lind qualified as a revelation in 2017. Matt Adams looked everyday-ready when he filled in in 2018, and was so well-liked in the clubhouse that the Nationals will likely make overtures to bring the free agent back this winter. Even Mark Reynolds, all but plucked from the sidewalks of Disneyland where he was enjoying time with his kids, surged as an important contributor and clubhouse presence. The Nationals have a good track record in finding backup first basemen. But might they have to start planning for a long-term starter?

Zimmerman’s contract ends this season, and contains an $18 million team option for 2020. That price is about what Anthony Rendon is projected to make in arbitration this year. Zimmerman wants to stay a National, and has said he hopes to play beyond 2019. Perhaps the team can work out a deal for less money. Indeed, the Nationals seem likely to make things with Zimmerman work somehow.

But his health and contract situation require major consideration. Yes, the Nationals could continue to go year-to-year, signing strong backups and spelling Zimmerman that way. Then, if Zimmerman plays like he has when healthy, he will always have a spot. Yet this offseason is a pivot point for the team, a chance for Mike Rizzo to reconfigure this roster’s future. He rarely plans a year at a time. With Bryce Harper’s free agency still two years away, for example, Rizzo traded for Adam Eaton to ensure some stability in the outfield. Might the Nationals consider finding a more long-term solution for Zimmerman’s situation?

Among the out-of-the-box options would include signing Harper and moving him to first when Zimmerman departs, as the 25-year-old’s outfield defense has not withstood scrutiny over the past two seasons. But when Harper took ground balls at first base before some games this season, everyone laughed it off. That was just “Bryce being Bryce,” as Dave Martinez put it, and everyone with the team suggested they had no grand plan there.

Similarly, perhaps Juan Soto could move to first at some point, though for now, he seems likely to be a left field staple for years to come. A person familiar with the Nationals plans said they haven’t ruled out moving Soto — more a “we might consider that,” instead of a “we are actively considering that.” But moving Soto would truncate his development in left field. Neither scenario seems likely in the short-term.

If the Nationals decide they need a long-term successor for Zimmerman, they might be able to find one this winter. The Arizona Diamondbacks are said to be willing to listen on just about anyone, including Goldschmidt. Rizzo has a history of making the call on just about anyone, just in case. Bringing in Goldschmidt or a similar star would muddle Zimmerman’s place entering what could be his final Nationals season. It would also cost elite prospects and money the Nationals probably could spend to fill actual holes in their rotation, behind the plate, or at second base.

Adams, Marwin Gonzalez, Lucas Duda and others are available in free agency, meaning the Nationals will have plenty of options for their annual steady first base backup. Howie Kendrick should be healthy again, and available to spell Zimmerman. The Nationals do not have to make a big move.

And for all Zimmerman’s health issues, he has produced when healthy. Projected over a full season, Zimmerman’s 2018 numbers suggest he would have had between 20-25 homers, close to 100 RBI, and an .824 OPS that likely would have risen in part because so much of Zimmerman’s season was spent catching up that he never found time to have much rhythm. But the Nationals can no longer project Zimmerman’s numbers over a full season. They will need a reliable backup for at least one more season, making that left-handed slugging first baseman an offseason priority once again.

Source : https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2018/10/25/how-should-nationals-plan-ryan-zimmerman/

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