When Ryan Zimmerman talked about his impending debut at first base before this past Sunday's series finale in St. Louis, the 29-year-old corner infielder-turned-outfielder talked about eventually returning to third base, the position he's played since he debuted in the majors in 2005. Until Bryce Harper returns, Zimmerman will likely stay in left.
When Harper returns, however, as Washington Nationals' skipper Matt Williams explained last week, the plan as of now is to put Zimmerman back at third base, where he's struggled defensively while playing with an injured and now a surgically-repaired right shoulder.
"I don't think there's much of a choice," Williams told reporters last week in San Francisco. "I think the fantastic thing is [Zimmerman] has approached playing left field with vigor and with enthusiasm and has worked hard to be a really good left fielder. And that's just a compliment to him and a compliment about what he thinks about our team and what he's willing to do. But all things being equal, I don't see much of a choice. He's got a Gold Glove at third base, so we have to take that into consideration too."
Zimmerman, for his part, told reporters, including The Washington Post's James Wagner, that he's open to anything and willing to do what is asked of him.
"'I’m ready to do whatever [Manager Matt Williams] wants me to do each day,'" Zimmermann told the WaPost reporter on Sunday, "'I’m looking forward to it.'"
FOXSports.com's Ken Rosenthal wondered in an article yesterday if the Nationals' stated plan will in fact play out as they've said it will, noting the Nationals' reluctance to admit Zimmerman was moving to left in the first place until just before it was time for him to take the field. Rosenthal spoke to Nats' GM Mike Rizzo this weekend in St. Louis and the General Manager said he, "... is not looking to trade center fielder Denard Span or first baseman Adam LaRoche to open a new position for Zimmerman," so, "... once Harper is back, the Nats say they essentially have no choice but to return Zimmerman to third."
While noting that Harper is still weeks away and acknowledging that, "these things have a way of working themselves out," Rosenthal asks if moving Zimmerman back to third is the best option, citing Zimmerman's comments to reporters about the move to left being "refreshing" and "a new chapter," and quoting a scout who saw Zimmerman during his minor league rehab assignment and said, "'It looked like the weight of the world was off his shoulders.'"
The other option Rosenthal and others who have looked at the situation have arrived at is moving Denard Span to a bench role with Zimmerman remaining in left, Harper playing center, a position he told the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore recently he actually preferred, and the infield defense remaining as it is right now with Anthony Rendon at third and Danny Espinosa at second:
"Zimmerman’s arm is less of an issue in left than at third. Anthony Rendon is the Nats’ best defensive third baseman, Espinosa their best defensive second baseman. And Harper might be at least comparable to Span in center, considering Harper’s performance at the position in 2012."
As much as Harper liked playing center the majority of the time in 2012, Rizzo went looking for a center fielder and leadoff man after that season ended, explaining at the time in an interview on 106.7 the FAN in D.C., that they were after, "... a guy who can play center field and lead off for us, [and] make [Bryce Harper] more comfortable in a corner outfield position which is where we see his future down the road. I think it takes a lot of stress off [Harper] physically and mentally playing that real important defensive position."
Span's acquisition, as Rizzo explained at the time, bridged the gap until some of the center field/outfield prospects in the organization were developed.
"We think we've got guys in the system that fill this role," Rizzo explained in November of 2012. "But they're years away. They're in the pipeline and we're looking for big things from them down the road."
Rosenthal wrote yesterday that with the emergence of a prospect like, "Double A center fielder Michael Taylor, an elite defender and highly regarded prospect, [who] is batting .331 with a 1.011 OPS," it's, "... only a matter of time before Span is the odd man out," anyway, so while moving Harper back to center might be a gamble, "playing Zimmerman at third is the most troubling option of all."
Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell wondered in his weekly chat with readers if putting Zimmerman back at third again was a gamble that could actually do long-term harm:
"The key question with Zimmerman at this point is whether putting him back at third base for the rest of this season permanently damages his shoulder to the point where you have crushed your $100M investment which would, presumably, have been safe if he'd simply been allowed to move to LF or first."
Harper is not expected back for at least another 2-3 weeks. The Nationals don't have to make a final decision until he's ready to return, but there are long and short-term implications to whatever they decide to do.