The November 2005 trade that sent 15-year veteran third baseman Vinny Castilla to the San Diego Padres in return for right-hander Brian Lawrence ushered in the start of the Ryan Zimmerman era in the nation's capital just one year after Castilla signed a free agent deal with Washington in November of 2004.
Zimmerman, the Nationals' 05 1st Round pick, played 67 games in the minors that summer after he was drafted out of the University of Virginia, 63 of them at Double-A Harrisburg, putting up a .336/.377/.564 line with 22 doubles and 11 HRs in 269 plate appearances before he was called up to make his MLB debut.
In 20 games and 62 plate appearances in D.C. that September, over which he hit 10 doubles and posted a .397/.419/.569 line, Zimmerman convinced the Nats he was ready to play every day at the major league level.
"'They wanted to open up room for Ryan, and that's good,'" Castilla told nationals.com writer Bill Ladson after he'd been dealt. "'Ryan Zimmerman is a great player and great prospect,'" Castilla added.
"'I told you when I drafted him that he was that type of player,'" then-Nats' GM Jim Bowden told MLB.com's Mr. Ladson at the time and Zimmerman was ready for the majors even faster than the General Manager expected.
Nine season and over 1,100 games later, following a few years in which he struggled with shoulder issues which finally required surgery, the Nationals have started to talk about a time when Zimmerman will no longer be the third baseman in Washington.
Cortisone shots allowed Zimmerman to stay on the field throughout the Nats' 2012 run to the first postseason appearance since baseball's return to D.C. in 2005, but he finally had surgery after the season. The recovery process was slower than expected, however, and his throwing issues persisted through much of the 2013 campaign.
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Zimmerman matched his career-high with 15 throwing errors (and there were more than a few errant throws first baseman Adam LaRoche scooped up or brought down). He finished strong, however, and finally started to undo the changes he made over several years of compensating for his damaged shoulder. Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo told reporters, including NatsInsider.com's Mark Zuckerman, that in spite of the struggles, he hadn't seriously considered move Zimmerman away from the hot corner:
"'I never had any discussions or thoughts about anyone else. He was our third baseman of the future and a middle of the lineup hitter, and I knew that as his shoulder was rehabbing and getting better each and every day that he’d be the defensive guy that we’ve had in the past and hopefully we’ll have in the future.'"
"Certainly it's well-documented about his shoulder surgery last year and having surgery as a player you understand that it takes about a year to get back to where you want to be," new Nats' skipper Matt Williams told ESPN980's Thom Loverro and Tim Shover in a late-November interview. "We saw him, at the end of last year, get back to being comfortable throwing the baseball across the diamond. He had arm strength. From a defensive skill-set, he's one of the best in the game."
Though the Nats' GM, manager and Zimmerman himself are reportedly comfortable that the throwing issues are behind him, when Williams met with the third baseman personally earlier this month, according to a Washington Post report by Adam Kilgore, he did broach the subject of the Zimmerman possibly moving across the infield this Spring to get some work in so he could potentially play some games at first base in 2014.
As the WaPost's Mr. Kilgore makes clear, however, Zimmerman will be the everyday third baseman for the Nationals this season and getting some work at first just gives Williams options. Anthony Rendon, the Nats' 2011 1st Round pick who was drafted as a third baseman out of college, could move from second to third at some point in the future, but for now, Zimmerman will get some work at first, he will be the Nationals' third baseman with Rendon at second and Adam LaRoche at first in the second year of the two-year deal he signed last winter.
When the idea of Zimmerman, who signed a 6-year/$100M contract in February of 2012, moving to first base at some point in the future came up last Spring, the third baseman told the Washington Post's Mr. Kilgore that he understood he might eventually move from the hot corner at some point in his career, but as he put it, "'I think I want to play third base until someone is better than me at it.'"
As Zimmerman reiterated last week, he still thinks he's the best third baseman the Nationals have on their roster. There may come a day when Zimmerman does leave third base, but the Nats don't appear to be in any rush to usher in that new era just yet.
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