October 21, 2017

OPINION: Ryan Zimmerman to left field is a thing

So, it really seems like it’s happening. For three days in a row, Ryan Zimmerman, erstwhile Washington Nationals third baseman currently on the disabled list rehabbing a bum thumb, has been shagging fly balls and picking up simulated hits in the outfield before and during batting practice at Nats Park.

Nats coaches and officials have played it off publically, telling reporters that he was out there for “conditioning” and alleviating the boredom of a lengthy disabled list stint. But the beat reporters are hearing another story, one that the Nats are extremely serious about considering moving Zimmerman to the outfield upon his return from the D.L.. That won’t be for a while, as he hasn’t been cleared to grip a bat yet. But it’s on the horizon.

Zimmerman is a tremendous athlete. There’s no doubt he could passably play left field. He probably won’t win any Gold Gloves out there, and the first few weeks we might see a couple of mistakes, but let’s face it, the Nats have trotted out Adam Dunn, Michael Morse and even Paul LoDuca out there in recent years. Shoot, we’ve seen Tyler Moore, Kevin Frandsen and Zach Walters out there — infielders all — in the past week.

There are a couple of reasons why this is worth exploring. First and foremost, Zimmerman’s throwing from his arthritic right shoulder still hasn’t really improved significantly. Moving to the outfield will allow him to make much easier throws to cutoff men rather than the precision necessary in the infield. The Nats were already talking about moving him to first base, but with Adam LaRoche enjoying another comeback season, that move would be scuttled.

Zimmerman’s bat would play better at third or left field than at first base anyway.

Another reason is the stellar defense the Nats have currently in the infield. Danny Espinosa’s defensive work at second and Anthony Rendon at third is incredibly valuable. Espinosa has been providing some pop with the bat (and very little else now that he’s essentially scrapped the bunting experiment), while Rendon has been one of the Nats most valuable hitters during the first third of the season.

The big question really isn’t where Zimmerman plays when he returns. I already have penned him in at left. The real question is, does he stay there when Bryce Harper comes back, assuming Zimmerman beats Harper off the D.L.?

That all depends on whether Denard Span is hitting. So far this season, he isn’t.

Span has hit leadoff all season long, to a .236/.288/.326 line and a perfect 5-for-5 on stolen base attempts. That’s simply not enough, even with his Gold Glove caliber defense in center field. Span owns a .348 OBP lifetime, but that is largely boosted by his breakout second season in the bigs, where he reached base at a .392 clip. He hasn’t been the same player since, never topping .342 in a full season. His OPS on Fangraphs is a lowly 71.

You could maybe make a case for carrying his bat hitting in the eighth spot, but hitting him leadoff right now is crippling the Nats offense which is already missing its 3-4-5 hitters.

If Span hasn’t resurrected his season by the time Harper comes back, we could very well see an outfield alignment of Zimmerman-Harper-Werth left-to-right, with Span serving as defensive replacement and pinch-runner. It would beef up the Nats offense considerably, as long as Espinosa is still hitting the occasional homer and beating out the occasional bunt single.

At the start of the season, we were talking about how long it would take the Nationals to move Zimmerman off of third base. We never for a minute considered an idea that seems to have come from left field.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press and is a copy editor for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, WA. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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