Tough decisions ahead for Nationals with Ryan Zimmerman close to return to Nats' lineup

USA TODAY Sports

Washington Nationals' 3B/LF Ryan Zimmerman has talked in the past about wanting to play third base as long as he could, but as he gets closer to returning to the majors, maybe as soon as tomorrow, it looks more and more like the time for a change is now...

As far back the winter of 2012, when Anthony Rendon was preparing for his first Spring Training with the Washington Nationals after they took him 6th overall in the 2011 Draft, incumbent third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was being asked about one day moving away from the position he'd played since shortly after the Nationals drafted him 4th overall in 2005.

"'I think I want to play third base until someone is better than me at it,'" Zimmerman told Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore that February.

"'I’m certainly not going to make it easy for someone to come and be better than me. Someone is going to have to take it from me...'" -Ryan Zimmerman to The Washington Post's Adam Kilgore

"'I’m certainly not going to make it easy for someone to come and be better than me,'" he said. "'Someone is going to have to take it from me.'"

Zimmerman played 145 games at third base for the 2012 NL East Champions, posting a .282/.346/.478 line with 36 doubles and 25 HRs in 641 plate appearances, finishing the season at +4.0 fWAR, but he needed four cortisone shots to get through the year and he needed shoulder surgery after the season which finally cleaned out, "... an arthritic section of bone in the acromioclavicular joint in his right shoulder," as the Washington Times reported in late 2012.

Rendon injured his ankle two games into his first pro season and was out of action until August of 2012, but he managed to get 43 games and 160 plate appearances in before making a trip to the Arizona Fall League, where he played for Matt Williams in the only managing gig that was on Williams' resume when he was hired as the Nationals' skipper this past winter. Rendon put up a .233/.363/.489 line in the minors in 2012, and a .338/.436/.494 line in 22 games and 94 PAs in the AFL.

As former Nationals' manager Davey Johnson told reporters including MLB.com's Marty Noble during the spring of 2013, after Zimmerman watched Rendon at the plate early that year he asked, "'Are there any other positions he plays?'"

Rendon ended up putting up a .375/.412/.875 with four doubles and four home runs in 13 Grapefruit League games that spring.

He was called up to make his MLB debut when Zimmerman went down with an injury early in the 2013 campaign, but when he came up for good, Rendon moved over to second, taking Danny Espinosa's place when the Nats' '08 2nd Round pick struggled at the plate while dealing with a wrist injury.

Zimmerman put up a .275/.344/.465 line with 26 doubles and 26 HRs in 147 games and 633 PAs in 2013, over which he was worth +2.9 fWAR. Rendon posted a .265/.329/.396 line with 23 doubles and seven home runs in 98 games and 394 PAs, finishing his rookie campaign at +1.5 fWAR.

Asked again this past winter about eventually moving away from third, Zimmerman told the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore that he still wasn't ready to leave the only position he knew as a major leaguer.

"'Like I’ve said all along, if someone is better than me, I’ll move,'" Zimmerman reiterated.

"'Going through the shoulder issues that I’ve been through, really the last two, two and a half years, I feel like I got over that hump.'"

"We're going to see where he can contribute the most -- until [Bryce] Harper gets back and we have our full compliment of everyday players -- where he fits in best..." -Mike Rizzo on Ryan Zimmerman's position when he returns

Zimmerman started the 2013 season at third with Rendon back at second base, but the pain in his shoulder and throwing issues he dealt with before and after the injury and surgery persisted to the point he was forced to change his mechanics, moving to a 3/4 arm slot to minimize the pain.

It wasn't the shoulder, however, but a thumb injury that actually forced Zimmerman out of the lineup this year.

He suffered a fractured right thumb sliding back into second base on a pickoff play in the second week of the season and with Danny Espinosa healthy again, Rendon moved to third base in Zimmerman's absence.

When Zimmerman began working out as he prepared to return from the fractured thumb, he began working out in left field and the Nationals gradually admitted that while it was a way for him to do work when he couldn't field grounders in the infield, it was also preparation for Zimmerman to potentially play left field in the major leagues.

CBSSports.com's Jon Heyman quoted sources who told him the plan was to have Zimmerman move between third, first and left once he was back.

Nats' GM Mike Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.'s Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier that what was most important was getting Zimmerman's bat back in the lineup.

"Zim is going to be a run producer for us," Rizzo said. "And he's a guy that, in the field, we're going to see where he can contribute the most -- until [Bryce] Harper gets back and we have our full compliment of everyday players -- where he fits in best that gives us as many offensive weapons in the lineup as possible."

Asked if that meant "left field" for Zimmerman, Rizzo told the show's hosts he liked what he saw from Zimmerman in the outfield.

"We all know that he's a Gold Glove-caliber third baseman," Rizzo explained. "He's taken balls at first base. He's taken fly balls in the outfield. He's a guy who can play anywhere and more importantly is willing to do anything and play anywhere and do anything he has to do to help us win games and that's a huge statement from a veteran play with the caliber of Ryan Zimmerman."

Zimmerman told Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell last week he was finally coming to grips with the idea that after several years of dealing with and working around the shoulder issue he might not be the everyday third baseman anymore:

"'I’m comfortable playing wherever it helps the team. That’s why we’re all here. Down the road,' he said, not specifying whether that was in days or years, 'left field is probably better than first base for me.'"

For the last three of his four rehab appearances with the Potomac Nationals, Zimmerman has played left field.

If he returns to the majors in time for Tuesday's series opener with the Philadelphia Phillies, Nationals' skipper Matt Williams will pencil his name into the lineup for the first time since April 12th and a new era in the nation's capital might officially be underway...

But even if Zimmerman does play left field for now, another decision will have to be made once Bryce Harper is back. Will Zim stay in left with Denard Span becoming a fourth outfielder and Harper moving to center?

Will Zimmerman move back to third with Rendon returning to second and Danny Espinosa becoming the utility man again?

Williams will likely welcome the opportunity to decide which of his talented players he can use after dealing with all the injuries that he's been hit with in his first season as a major league manager.

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