Ryan Zimmerman got six games in last Spring before the baseball world shut down in mid-March, and before that he hadn’t played in a competitive environment since Game 7 of the 2019 World Series. Zimmerman opted out of playing in 2020’s 60-game COVID campaign, out of concern for his family’s health, so when the 36-year-old, 15-year vet takes the field at the start of Spring Training in 2021, he will have been out of action for quite a while.
That could, of course, be a positive for a player who has dealt with his share of injuries in the last few years.
There was never much doubt in Zimmerman’s mind that he was going to come back to the game, which has been part of his life for decades, when he weighed the risk of playing last year, but he and the Nationals made it official over the weekend.
“I guess I would say I definitely always thought I would come back,” the Nationals’ ‘05 1st Round pick told reporters on a Zoom call this past Saturday, after he signed a 1-year/$1M contract for 2021.
“I’ve been working out since probably September/October, so if I can just have 11 months off between every year it would be great, every time I’m coming in for a new year, so yeah, I’ve been preparing for a while and I’m definitely excited to have the chance to do it again.”
While the time off allowed Zimmerman to rest up and recuperate from the previous fifteen seasons of major league baseball, it is also a significant time away from the game towards the end of a long career.
“I think physically I’m in a good spot,” Zimmerman said, but he’ll be returning in a different role than he filled previously, as a backup first baseman and right-handed bench bat, after the Nationals acquired everyday first baseman Josh Bell in a trade with Pittsburgh’s Pirates this winter.
“I’m kind of looking forward to — not knowing when I’m going to play each week — but you’ll be able to map out sort of the weekly schedule,” Zimmerman added.
“See who we’re playing, see who the projected starters are for the other teams.
“I’m kind of looking forward to learning and getting into I guess late-game, situational kind of thinking along with [Nationals’ manager] Davey [Martinez] and thinking, ‘If this guy gets on or if they bring this guy in from the bullpen, maybe I do a pinch hit here.’
“There’s a lot of things that I’ve never really, I guess, thought about, or gotten into in the game of baseball, because I’ve always been trying to play every day, you do this, you do that. So I’m kind of excited about that and learning some new things about the game that I don’t know.”
Right now at least, Zimmerman said he hopes that the time off rejuvenates him as he heads into what will be the last couple years of his career (since he’s not ruling out playing beyond 2021).
“Mentally, I think taking a year off, I have full confidence that I’ll be able to still hit a baseball... hopefully,” he joked.
“I think I’ll be all right. But I’m just excited for the opportunity. I think we have a good team and there’s still a bunch of guys out there, so I’m sure a couple other guys will come on.
“The chance to win and to come back with this group of guys again, I’m looking forward to it.”
Had things been different, however, and had the team in D.C. undergone an overhaul or sort of rebuilding effort, Zimmerman said, his decision might have been different.
“It’s still a pretty good, close-knit group of kind of some of the guys that were there the last time I played,” he said.
“I think there’s been plenty done on what kind of group we had that year. There [are] some exciting young players as well that I’ve had a chance to meet before. So yeah, that was one of the reasons, and like I always said, I enjoy playing with this group of guys.
“If it was a different situation and we had a bunch of roster turnover or we had a bunch of unknowns or uncertainties it might have made the decision a little bit harder, but they do such a good job of keeping just such a good group of guys together, it’s something that you want to be a part of.”
Luckily for Zimmerman, there was a still a role on the roster for him, and a need that he fills on the only team he’s known as a professional.
If the Nationals hadn’t been open to a return in 2021? Would he have considered playing for another team?
“I’ve never really completely ruled out playing somewhere else, but I don’t think it would — it really wouldn’t be worth it at this point in my career.
“I just wanted to come back and play and have the opportunity to obviously help this team win, but playing anywhere else I think would be really weird. It really wouldn’t be worth it I guess is the better use of words.”