Who exactly is Ryan Zimmerman?
In 2016, the Washington Nationals first baseman hit .218 with just 15 home runs as injuries limited him to 115 games — remarkably the most he’d played in three years. The next season, Zimmerman got off to a blistering start and never looked back, earning his second All-Star nod while posting a career-best .930 OPS.
Zimmerman fell back to Earth in 2018 and was greeted by a right-oblique strain just one month into the campaign, costing him 58 games on the disabled list. He finished the year hitting a modest .264 with 13 homers and an .824 OPS over 85 games. It was the third time in five seasons Zimmerman failed to eclipse the century mark in games played.
Conflicting reports indicated he was battling some type of injury coming out of Spring Training, which could explain the .217 batting average he accumulated over the first five weeks of the season before he hit the DL. In the 52 games following his return, Zimmerman hit .295 with good power and on-base percentage 30 points above his career average.
With his strong 2017 season, Zimmerman proved he can still add value at the plate when fully healthy. However, after he turned 34 in September, age is threatening to become a factor. To put things into perspective, only one position player age-34 or older has put together a 3-bWAR season over the past two years: Jed Lowrie with 4.8 bWAR in 2018.
The Nationals will be paying Zimmerman $18 million next season, which will be the highest yearly salary of his career. After signing former full-time first basemen Adam Lind and Matt Adams each of the past two offseasons, respectively, to back up Zimmerman, the team appears content with hoping he pans out and stashing a high-floor insurance policy in case he doesn’t.
Between the multitude of holes to fill across the roster and ownership’s desire to get back under the luxury tax threshold, general manager Mike Rizzo and Co. won’t have the funds to pay for an upgrade. In addition, Zimmerman is also virtually untradeable due to his age and contract — although it’s very unlikely Washington would even consider trading the former face of the franchise anyway.
The tough decision lies next offseason, when the Nationals will have to decide whether to pay Zimmerman another $18 million in 2020 or eat his $2 million buyout and let him walk. If he suffers another injury-plagued season in 2019 and the Nationals don’t re-sign him, Zimmerman could suffer the Jayson Werth treatment and be forced into early retirement.
This makes next season a critical one for Zimmerman. The Nationals will look like a very different team in 2019 and the race for the division crown will only get tighter as the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies continue in their development. If Zimmerman, who has been with the team through all its highs and lows, wants to play a role in any kind of deep playoff run with the Nationals, he’s going to need to prove his age isn’t a problem come next season.