Outgoing Washington Nationals' manager Davey Johnson talked to reporters this week about potential September callups, explaining that the team had discussed their plans but downplaying the significance of expanded rosters for the nation's capital's Nats.
"We've kind of briefly gone over it," Johnson said. "The [main] thing, add a couple relievers. Add another catcher. Other than that, again, with a set lineup, you're not making a whole lot of changes. How many guys can you pinch hit? Callups... unless you're rebuilding or trying to do some things, get a good look at guys, but I think we've got a pretty good idea about the talent level we've got and what they're capable of doing."
Last season was different. Whereas in years past, the Nationals had used the opportunity expanded rosters provided to call players up and expose the likes of Danny Espinosa and before him Ian Desmond to the major league level in anticipation of them becoming fixtures of the big league roster, last September the NL East's first-place Nats were looking for pieces that could help with a run at the team's first postseason appearance.
"'We are not in the situation where we are going to bring up guys to take a look at players like we did in the past,'" Nats' GM Mike Rizzo told MASN's Byron Kerr. "'The players that we bring up are going to be players that can help us in real games for a playoff stretch.'" It was just the second time in the Nationals eight years in Washington, D.C. that the team found themselves in the position of competing for a postseason berth late in the season. The first time was back in 2005.
When '05 1st Round pick Ryan Zimmerman became the Nationals' first September callup, Washington was in the midst of an improbable run in their inaugural campaign after relocating from Montreal. Zimmerman was drafted out of the University of Virginia with the 4th overall pick that year and he signed quickly and began tearing up the Nats' system. In 67 games between Class-A Savannah and Double-A Harrisburg, the then-20-year-old infielder had a .336/.377/.564 line with 22 doubles and 11 HRs in 269 plate appearances. Then-Nats' GM Jim Bowden thought the team's first 1st Round pick would benefit from participating in a pennant race.
When Zimmerman made his MLB debut on September 1st 2005, the Nationals were 7.0 games out in the NL East, and just 3.0 games back in the Wild Card Race.
"'It's nice to be able to expose a young future star for a pennant race,'" Bowden told MLB.com's Bill Ladson. "'No matter how much he plays, the experience he is about to get here will be invaluable.'" Zimmerman knew he wasn't going to play all that much with veteran infielder Vinny Castilla getting the bulk of the work at third, but he told the Washington Post's Barry Svrluga that he too thought it would be an invaluable experience that would teach him more than he could learn playing in the minors. "'I would trade playing five or six more games down there for the experience of coming up here any day,'" Zimmerman told the WaPost reporter.
Nationals' manager Frank Robinson was reluctant to give Zimmerman at bats at the expense of veterans who had been in the majors all season, but he liked what he saw when Zimmerman did play, telling the Washington Post's Mr. Svrluga, "'He looks very comfortable at the plate. It doesn't look like he's overmatched.'"
Zimmerman made two starts over the next three weeks and in 18 plate appearances was 6 for 17 with four doubles. When Castilla was sideline with tendinitis in his right knee on September 22nd, Zimmerman took over at third, with his general manager telling the WaPost's beat writer that he was confident in the team's top prospect's abilities. Bowden said he thought Zimmerman was ready for an everyday role at the major league level. "'He is for me -- offensively, defensively, makeup-wise,'" Bowden said.
Zimmerman, who turned 21 on September 28, 2005, finished his first month in the majors with a .397/.419/.569 line and 10 doubles in 62 plate appearances. A month after the season ended, with the Nationals failing to make the postseason, they traded Castilla to the San Diego Padres, opening third base up for the player who would become the Face of the Franchise. "This trade,'" Jim Bowden told reporters, "'... clears a path for Ryan Zimmerman, who we believe will be a fixture at the hot corner in Washington for years to come.'"
Zimmerman's been there ever since...
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