WASHINGTON — When the Montreal Expos left Canada for our nation’s capital, the Major League team was a patchwork of veterans, the farm system bereft of talent and promise. The franchise essentially hit the reset button, starting with the 2005 draft, in which they owned the fourth overall pick. With that selection, they snagged a third baseman out of the University of Virginia who would become the cornerstone of one of baseball’s greatest rebuilding projects.
Ryan Zimmerman is the face of the Washington Nationals. He owns nearly every offensive record in Nationals history. His 1,198 games played are more than 400 more than the next closest player on the list, Ian Desmond. His 184 home runs — 10 of the walk-off variety, which inspired his other nickname — are more than twice the next-closest total. And now, as the Nationals enter the 2014 playoffs as the top seed in the National League, Zimmerman finds himself a man without a position or a place in the lineup.
This potential logjam has been in play all season. But injuries along the way — first to Bryce Harper, then to Zimmerman — have helped keep the issue from becoming a reality. Until now.
Ever since the surgery on Zimmerman’s shoulder after the 2012 season, there’s been a question of whether he could make the throw from third base anymore. He struggled in 2013, especially early, and has never really found an arm slot that works for him consistently. Zimmerman played just 10 games at third base before breaking his thumb on a slide in mid-April. When he returned in early June, Anthony Rendon had established himself as the solid defensive third baseman the team had been lacking.
The Nationals shifted Zimmerman out to left field, while starter Bryce Harper dealt with injuries of his own. Zimmerman’s athleticism translated quite well, in spite of his inexperience at the position. Strangely, the Nationals moved him back to third base for much of July, but then he tore his hamstring trying to beat out a double play on July 22, an injury that has kept him out until the final throes of the regular season.
Upon his return, Zimmerman did not play any more third base. He played left field in an intrasquad game on Wednesday. Since Zimmerman’s departure from the hot corner, Rendon has established himself as one of the best all-around third basemen in the game, effectively stealing the position out from underneath the franchise cornerstone.
And with third base spoken for and an outfield full with Bryce Harper now returned to left, Denard Span in center and Jayson Werth in right, the man who has meant the most to the Nationals since his arrival has been squeezed out.
But even Zimmerman himself seems to have come to terms with his fate.
“I think we have a pretty good young third baseman and he’s had a hell of a year,” Zimmerman said Thursday of Rendon. “And for us to have the best chance to win, you know, that’s where he needs to play.”
Rendon has had a season worthy of top-five MVP consideration. He batted .287 with a .351 on-base percentage and a team-leading .473 slugging percentage. He swatted 21 home runs, stole 17 bases in 20 attempts and finished the year with 6.5 wins over replacement, the seventh-highest mark of any position player in the major leagues.
Nats manager Matt Williams danced around the reality of his third-base situation a bit in his press conference a few hours prior. While he confirmed that Zimmerman had played only left field in the intrasquad game, he suggested that it was only as a matter of circumstance.
Zimmerman forever cemented his place in Nationals history with a walk-off home run in the first-ever game at Nationals Park in 2008. (Getty Images/Mitchell Layton)
“We only have a certain number of guys,” Williams said. “With all the guys that were here on the September call-up roster, we kept them around and then made sure that we had enough guys to field two teams yesterday. And as it worked out, we had a multitude of infielders and we had to fill every spot, so he played left.”
Make no mistake, though. If Williams had actually wanted to get Zimmerman reps at third base, that is exactly where he would have played. It’s clear that the man who once won a Gold Glove at the hot corner will not find himself back there anytime soon. He wasn’t willing to write off the possibility of ever returning, but came close on Thursday.
“Ever is a long time,” he replied when asked if he thought he’d ever play third again. “Maybe my last game, when I retire, they’ll put me out there.”
While that half-joke drew a laugh, it also cemented the reality of a situation that’s been brewing for more than two years. And with Washington’s corner outfielders both cemented in place — Werth under contract through 2017, Harper through 2018 — one wonders just where Zimmerman fits in beyond this season. First baseman Adam LaRoche will likely depart in free agency, but Zimmerman has played only 18 innings at first his entire career, all this season.
For now, he’ll take whatever chances he gets, out in left field and coming off the bench.
“Well, I think there’s a possibility for matchups within the series for Zim,” said Williams. “We’ll look for opportunities to get him at-bats, for sure, and then look at matchup opportunities within the series.”
Maybe that means a start in place of one of Washington’s lefties against southpaw Madison Bumgarner in Game 3. Maybe, if the Nationals and Dodgers both advance, he’ll start against world-beater Clayton Kershaw, against whom he is 7-for-16 (.438) lifetime.
“I’m just here to help us win,” Zimmerman said. “Whether that’s coming off the bench, playing left, whatever.”
It’s bizarre to think that the most important player in the Nationals’ short history might barely play a role in their best shot at postseason glory yet. But with everything he’s seen with this organization, from the consecutive 100-loss campaigns to the crippling heartbreak of Game 5 in 2012, Zimmerman’s just happy to be here.
“When (the injury) happened, we really didn’t know if I was going to be able to come back,” he said. “So being able to contribute, do whatever it is, I’m just excited to be a part of it.”