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Washington Nationals 2020 Spring Training: First base options in D.C.

With Ryan Zimmerman back, Eric Thames signed, and Howie Kendrick still swinging it, the Nationals have multiple options at first base in 2020.

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Before Ryan Zimmerman re-signed, taking a 1-year/$2M deal after the Washington Nationals declined a club option for 2020 (which would have paid the 35-year-old first baseman $18M in his 16th major league season), and before the defending World Series champs signed left-handed swinging first baseman Erick Thames (on a 1-year/$4M deal), Nats’ manager Davey Martinez talked to reporters about his plans for first base at the Winter Meetings.

Assuming that Zimmerman would be back, Martinez said he would need to handle the 2005 1st Round pick carefully as he tried to last season, and do the same with Howie Kendrick, an option at several infield spots, who got a 1-year/$6.25M deal from the Nationals after testing the free agent market this winter.

“I’m hoping [Zimmerman] can play a lot,” Martinez said, and, “... having him and Howie kind of helps. Signing Howie, signing him back, they both can play first base. And the biggest thing is, look, a healthy Zim can put up some big numbers for us, we know that, but we’ve got to keep him healthy.”

Zimmerman missed significant time in 2019 while dealing with plantar fasciitis issues once again, and Kendrick missed some time with a hamstring injury, but played 121 games overall on the year, the most he’s played since 2016, and produced, finishing up the regular season with a .344/.395/.572 line, 23 doubles, and 17 home runs in his 370 plate appearances, over which he was worth 2.9 fWAR.

“When Howie’s healthy, he’ll play second base,” Martinez said. “He can play probably a lot of second base, maybe two, three times a week if need be, and that being said, hopefully, Zim can play four or five times a week.”

Martinez’s comments on Castro at second came, of course, before the team signed Starlin Castro, who took a 2-year/$12M deal from the Nationals, and figures to play a lot of second base (but can play short and third as well), and before they signed Thames.

Thames finished the 2019 season with a .247/.346/.505 line, 23 doubles and 25 homers in 149 games and 549 PAs, over which he was worth 1.9 fWAR, the second-highest total thus far in his five MLB seasons.

“Thames is a big pickup for us,” GM Mike Rizzo said in early January. “You’re talking about a big left-handed power guy. We like his defense at first base. We like the way that he finished the season, and again, Davey, [Hitting Coach] Kevin Long, and myself had a lot of good discussions about who we wanted to be that left-handed guy at first base, and he was our clear choice, and again, he wanted to be here. Howie had sold me on him and him on me, so it was a good match, and I think we’ve got ourselves a guy that’s going to help us.”

When Thames spoke after signing, he said he hadn’t really discussed what his role would be in the nation’s capital.

“I can have my assumptions and try to put myself in Davey Martinez’s shoes, or Mike Rizzo’s shoes, but I can’t,” the 33-year-old infielder explained.

“All I can control is how I do as a player, whether it’s off the bench, or a platoon, or every day in the outfield, first base, pitching, who knows. I’m just kidding. It could be anything.

“All I can focus on is how I do my job.

“One thing I had to learn in the last three years,” Thames added, “there were times I played every day and there were times I didn’t play for four or five days, and then, hey like you get a pinch hit with bases loaded, big situation, have fun. And it’s like, ‘Are you prepared? Were you hitting off the machine? Were you staying in the gym? Were you staying in shape? Is your mind in the right place?’

“So I’ve learned how to control myself and go out there and play my game, so whatever the role is, I’m ready, the goal is to win, so whether it’s a pinch hit role or whatever my role is, I want to win, so that’s where I stand.”

Zimmerman said that the way the Nationals’ manager handled things last season worked well, and he assumes Martinez will take the same approach in 2020.

“I think you saw it last year. Howie’s hitting .330-.340, and everyone’s screaming and yelling at Davey because they want him to play every day, and Howie would have been the first one to tell you, ‘I can’t play every day.’

“I don’t want to speak for Starlin and Eric, Starlin can still probably play a good amount. I don’t know — I haven’t talked with Eric at all, but obviously he’s a ridiculously talented player with a ton of power, and then Asdrúbal [Cabrera] is sort of in the same boat as me and Howie. Those days off really help us.”

Cabrera returned to the Nationals on a 1-year/$2.5M deal after signing with the team and helping them down the stretch and in October last season.

“The short answer is it can be beneficial to all of us,” Zimmerman said of the opportunity to get some rest with a deep roster and options at multiple positions.

“I think the most important thing is that all of those guys, including myself, that you just mentioned, don’t really have big egos to the point where they get upset if they don’t play for a couple days in a row.

“We all know the game and we know our swings and ourselves enough to where if we don’t get any at bats for two or three days we don’t completely lose our swing. So I think that’s a big part of it as well.

“At the end of the day I think we all just want to win. That’s kind of how we were last year, and whatever Davey and Mike and those guys decide to do, like I said, I don’t like to speak for those guys, but I think everyone is kind of on the same ship there and we’re just trying to win every game.”

Will Zimmerman be able to put the plantar fasciitis issues behind him in his 16th season in the majors? Will Kendrick (at 36), keep rolling the way he has (.325/.373/.516 the last three seasons)? What will the Nationals get out of Thames (once the infielder and his new hitting coach get together)?

At first base, like other spots around the infield, Martinez and his coaches have options and, built-in redundancy that will help them deal with whatever issues come up with the veteran roster.