On Opening Day, I made two observations. The first was completely irrelevant— I noticed that the batboy’s uniform now featured a BB on the back, a new feature for 2017 and one that all of eleven people probably care about — but the second, which I realized during Matt Wieters’ first at-bat as a Washington National, was a little more interesting.
While watching Wieters, I thought about just how many starting catchers the Nats had gone through since 2005, and tried to think of one player that had played behind...er, ahead of them all.
By my count, and by the count of every Nationals roster since 2005, Ryan Zimmerman has been the one constant along every single catcher in Nationals’ history, from Brian Schneider to Kurt Suzuki to Matt Wieters.
Other than being a cool trivia fact, there is significance in this observation:
Zimmerman, who came up to the majors in September of 2005, the year he was drafted, has provided a constant presence at the corners of the Nats’ infield, no matter if the team lost one hundred games or came close to winning one hundred games.
And Zimmerman’s presence hasn’t even just been constant, it’s been a general plus for the team, as the Virginia native was the team’s first true star, launching walk-offs at RFK and at Nationals Park, and often being the one bright spot in an otherwise dismal few seasons for the team.
To keep the star third-turned-first baseman in town, the Nats and Zimmerman agreed to a six-year contract worth $100 million in 2012, the first year the Nats were contenders.
Five years later, in 2017, Zimmerman has two guaranteed seasons left on his contract—and the Nats are still contenders.
It’s a unique feat that the Nats have accomplished, running up so many winning seasons in a row -- and that doesn’t count the 2011 season in which Washington finished 80-81, deprived of one last chance to go .500 due to a rainout that was never rescheduled.
Zimmerman’s success has not correlated as much with the Nats’ success, as he has rapidly fallen off the tracks, first losing the majority of his 2014 season to injury, and then seeing his average dip below .250 for the first time in 2015.
It fell as low as .218 in 2016.
Zim or no Zim, most pundits believe that the run of success will end sometime after 2018, releasing articles month after month declaring how much time the Nats have left to win. Pretty soon, they’ll start counting down the months to the end of next season— it wouldn’t be surprising to read an article in July headlined “The Nats have fifteen months left to win a World Series.”
The obvious blow coming after 2018 is the loss of All-Star, 2015 NL MVP Bryce Harper, who, barring a miracle extension, will hit the open market after that season, joining the most prestigious free-agent class possibly in this era of the game, which includes Dodgers’ ace Clayton Kershaw, and Orioles’ third baseman Manny Machado — and the money the three players make, combined, will likely be enough for the trio to buy their own MLB team.
But declaring that the Nationals’ run of success begins and ends with Bryce Harper is just a preposterous claim.
Yes, it started in 2012, Harper’s first year—but the Nats also made the playoffs in 2014, when Harper was worth 1.0 WAR (per BBREF), and again in 2016, when he was worth 1.6 WAR.
When he was worth 9.9 WAR in his 2015 MVP Season? The Nats were 83-79 and missed the playoffs.
Mike Rizzo does not need one star to carry his team. Instead, he has always found that secret sauce, those few players that come in and play better than anyone could have possibly expected, leading the team towards the postseason.
Last year, Daniel Murphy and Tanner Roark led the charge.
In 2014, although there wasn’t one particular guy, Anthony Rendon stepped up in his sophomore season to become an unexpected leader.
In 2012, Adam LaRoche and Michael Morse slugged the Nats into the playoffs.
This year, if the Nationals do make another playoff run, it’s hard to know who it’ll be on the back of—both Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy have looked like their old selves early, and Trea Turner will likely turn things on soon—but those are guys that are expected to do well.
There’s Adam Eaton, of course—but his success would be expected.
If Matt Wieters looks like his old self, there’s a distinct possibility that he helps out in a big, big way.
But, the unexpected guy this year may not even need to be a new addition, and it could instead very well be an old standard bearer in Ryan Zimmerman.
Zimmerman, in his first four games, has hit .353, and already knocked two home runs out of the park.
Yes, this is the epitome of ‘fun with small sample sizes’ — but if the trend from the first few games—and from Spring Training, where Zimmerman hit .302— continues, it would provide a huge bolster for the team, truly making the lineup work from 1 to 8, as well as adding another dangerous weapon to the Nats’ arsenal, making their climb back to the postseason that much easier.
The resurgence would also make sense. Last year, Zimmerman hit the ball harder than nearly anyone, posting among the highest exit velocities in the league, but struggled to keep the ball off the ground, leading to the 32-year-old attempting to change the launch angle of his swing to get the ball off the ground more often this season.
Whether that works or not, we’ll see, but two home runs in four games can speak for themselves decently well so far -- if that proves to be the norm, then watch out.
Additionally, if Zimmerman can prove he’s up to the task of hitting in the high .200s or even the low .300s again, his future with the Nationals will become much more clear.
He’ll have a firm grasp on his starting spot, but will also give the Nats many reasons to exercise his 2020 option.
If Zimmerman’s hot start is just a fluke, and it very well could be, it’ll also leave the Nationals in a good position, with an easy decision to make on Zimmerman’s contract, freeing up much-needed salary space for the next decade—because who decided that the Nats are just going to stand pat during the 2018 offseason and not make a big splash of their own?
If you’re Mike Rizzo, you’re probably rooting for the former option, even with the potential of gaining some space in your payroll, seeing as you’ll get your money’s worth out of a quite expensive contract (Zimmerman will be paid $14,000,000 this year and next year, and $18,000,000 in 2019 and in 2020 if the Nats pick up his option, per Sportrac).
As fans, there would be something satisfying about seeing Ryan Zimmerman flying—er, lightly jogging—around the basepaths again, smile on his face, carrying the team on his back once more.
But, even if it’s just nostalgia now, it wouldn’t be later when Zimmerman is a top-tier offensive threat.
And really, if Zimmerman is the catalyst for the Nationals team that eventually makes a deep October run, who could argue that the most fitting way for the Nats to win their first World Series is on the back of their very first star, the man that was the face of D.C. baseball for so long, Ryan Zimmerman?