One of the big stories last winter, after then-new manager Matt Williams was introduced, was that the former major league third baseman had asked Nats' third baseman Ryan Zimmerman to bring a first baseman's glove to Spring Training in anticipation of Zimmerman getting some innings at first base. Zimmerman played his first five games at first in 2014 and with Adam LaRoche's departure via free agency this winter, the Nationals are now counting on Zimmerman, who dealt with shoulder issues again last season, suffered a fractured thumb and missed time with a hamstring injury, making the move on a full-time basis in 2015.
"We feel the transformation from third baseman to first baseman will be smooth and seamless," Nats' GM Mike Rizzo explained in an MLB Network Hot Stove interview this past December.
"I've seen him take balls over there at first base and he glides around very nicely. He's got, obviously, great hands and great feet at third base, and we think that will translate into first base.
"We see him as a first baseman transformation a lot on the lines of Mark Teixeira when he went from third to first. We think he's going to be a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman and of course offensively he's one of the most consistent run-producers that we have."
Matt Williams told reporters at NatsFest that though the Nationals would miss LaRoche, who signed a 2-year/$25M deal with the Chicago White Sox, he too was comfortable with Zimmerman making the transition.
"He's stability," Williams said of LaRoche. "Adam is very stable for a defense. He's very stable for an offense. He had an opportunity for [himself ] and his family. It's a good opportunity. It provides us an opportunity to get Zim over to first, too. And hopefully the rigors aren't as tough on him at first and he can stay healthy and have one of his typical Zim seasons if he plays 150-ish games. That would be great."
Zimmerman played just 61 games last season, the lowest total since he made his MLB debut with 20 games in 2005.
In 240 plate appearances in 2014, the Nats' '05 1st Round pick posted a .280/.342/.449 line with 19 doubles and five home runs, but the 29-going-on-30-year-old infielder missed 56 games after suffering the thumb injury in April, and then 55 more after suffering the Grade 3 strain of his hamstring in July.
Zimmerman returned in time to get eight games in with the Nationals in September, but he was used sparingly in the NLDS with the San Francisco Giants, going 1 for 4 in four pinch hit appearances. He rushed back in time so that he was available for the second postseason run of his tenure in the nation's capital, but was clearly not 100%.
When he spoke to reporters this winter, Zimmerman said last year's health issues were behind him and he was preparing for whatever he was asked to do in what will be his eleventh major league season.
"I’m going to get ready to play baseball, and if that’s where I play, then I’m ready," Zimmerman said when asked about the move to first, and he thinks he can help his fellow Nationals' infielders.
"I know how nice it is to have a good first baseman," he explained. "I’ve been lucky to play with a couple really good first basemen. Being on the other side of the field it’s comforting to know that you have a guy over there where if you get it close, he’s going to help you out a lot, and that’s what I’m going to work to be because I know how nice that makes you feel when you’re an infielder. But that’s going to take a lot of work.
"Everyone thinks you just go over to first base and kind of hide him there, but it’s a tough position, there’s a lot of things I have to learn, but I’m looking forward to the challenge."
Asked what he needed to learn, Zimmerman said it was just some of the basics of first base.
"Just learning the new assignments, where you’re supposed to be," he explained.
"Cut-offs relays, things like that. Other than that, it’s catch the ball, throw the ball. Being on the other side of the field will take some getting used to the spin, the ball coming off the bat, but I’m pretty confident I’ll be okay."
Zimmerman said he thinks his history at third base and even his time in the outfield will help with the transition.
"It’s always easier to move further away from the ball. I think outfielders come in -- I don’t know how often that happens -- but when it does happen, I think it’s harder for them because they’re so used to being further away and having more time to react. It really doesn’t get any more reactionary than third base. First base is different with the footwork and things like that. But playing in the infield, especially third base, would help. Shortstop to first I think would be a little different, but third it will help a lot."
Having watched LaRoche over the last four years and having a manager on the bench who has played both corner infield spots gives Zimmerman plenty of models for how to handle the change.
"I think Matt played there at the end of his career," Zimmerman said. "There’s plenty of people there to help. I’m not too worried about it as much as I need to have a personal consultant or something like that. But Adam was great obviously, he’s one of the best defensive first basemen I’ve ever seen play."
Did Zimmerman pick up enough from his now-former teammate? Will he be able to make a smooth transition?
What if he doesn't?
The top first base prospect in the organization, Matt Skole, is coming off a down year offensively as he worked his way back from Tommy John surgery and a wrist fracture. The Nationals have a few options to back Zimmerman up at first in Tyler Moore and Kevin Frandsen, and the Nats have added options like Mike Carp, Kila Ka'aihue and Clint Robinson to give them some depth at the position in the organization, but they're gambling that Zimmerman can make the move, stay healthy and give them the offensive production he has since he was drafted.