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Questions about Ryan Zimmerman’s return receiving early answers

Questions about Ryan Zimmerman’s return receiving early answers

Ryan Zimmerman labeled the season “brutal” because his foot stopped everything else. His always-grumpy shoulder felt well, there was no oblique issue to deal with, his legs were perky. But, his foot kept stalling the season out with moderate tears. Plantar fasciitis was the diagnosis. Might as well have been listed as “pain in the butt.” 

Because that’s what it seemed to Zimmerman. His sore right foot made his returns slow. It also wouldn’t tear through all the way to provide an odd bit of comfort with the injury. Fully torn fascia can lead to quicker, and better, healing. His was partially pulled apart. Twice. So, he spent days on a treadmill which helped support his weight. Weeks away from the team with Double-A Harrisburg or Single-A Potomac (though he minimized that time as much as possible). He watched with envy and built back up, returning Sept. 1 to endure poking from clubhouse and equipment manager Mike Wallace that he was a “September call-up.”

The questions when Zimmerman returned were anchored in how much he would play, and if he would remain healthy. Davey Martinez made clear -- again -- that a healthy Zimmerman is the team’s starting first baseman. Matt Adams would play in matchup situations. Howie Kendrick would start over there on occasion, too. 

Since he’s been back, Zimmerman has played seven of a possible 10 games, starting six. He’s hitting .304 with three homers and 10 RBIs. Wednesday’s three-hit night in a 6-2 Washington win gave his numbers a big boost since this is small-sample-size theater. However, this is of note because of the hand-wringing associated with his return, as well as his propensity for surges. 

Zimmerman is almost 35 years old -- and mocks himself by using an imaginary walker during his home run celebrations. Kendrick, because he was nursed along rightly by Davey Martinez, put together an excellent year. Adams did standard Adams things (20 home runs, low batting average, subpar fielding). Zimmerman remains the best defender among them. Kendrick has been the best hitter this year.

So, then who should play? Martinez has made a clear decision. Adams’ playing time has dipped since Zimmerman returned. He’s started three games, plus came off the bench twice to pinch-hit, his original and best role. Kendrick has made five starts -- two as the designated hitter since the Nationals are playing at Minnesota to start this week.

Zimmerman, like Kendrick, needs to be regularly revolved out of the starting lineup in order to preserve his health. Martinez could switch their roles Thursday -- putting Kendrick in the field for a night and using Zimmerman as the designated hitter. Adams could receive a shot, too, since Minnesota is throwing right-hander Kyle Gibson. Martinez has options.

Which was the point all along. Zimmerman opened the season as the starter. Kendrick expected at-bats through being multi-positional. Zimmerman’s injury put Kendrick at first base much of the year. The Nationals received the best offensive year of Kendrick’s career. They were lucky in some ways.

Now, with Zimmerman healthy, and next year’s contract situation looming, he has a final two weeks to show something. Zimmerman has been streaky -- in both directions -- his entire career. He told NBC Sports Washington months ago he knows he needs proof he can still play when healthy in order to return next season. This is his final shot to do so.

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Nationals trading for a third baseman is possible -- as long as it’s not Nolan Arenado

Nationals trading for a third baseman is possible -- as long as it’s not Nolan Arenado

Here’s the list of players on the Nationals’ active roster who could play third base: Wilmer Difo, Jake Noll, Adrián Sánchez, Howie Kendrick, Carter Kieboom. Career major-league starts at the position: Difo, 29; Noll, one;  Sánchez, nine; Kendrick, 25; Kieboom, zero. 

Such is the state of third base for the defending World Series champions. Not good. 

Which makes Josh Donaldson’s agent smile and any semi-skilled third baseman with a pulse a possible target. Possible trades? Count the Nationals in. On most. Not on Nolan Arenado. That’s a non-starter because Washington is not going to send assets (prospects) for a contract it was unwilling to give Anthony Rendon in the first place. Zero chance. Zilch.

However, Kris Bryant is more intriguing depending on the years and ask -- as always with trades. Beyond him and Kyle Seager, is there another third baseman the Nationals could pursue in a trade? The question takes on weight because of the aforementioned toothless list of in-house candidates and shallow free-agent talent pool beyond Donaldson.

Any trade consideration needs to begin with an understanding of the parameters Washington is working from. Last season, Rendon’s one-year deal to avoid arbitration earned him $18.8 million. When Washington looks at the cost for its next third baseman, the number will be similar to last season’s cost for Rendon. A bump in the competitive balance tax threshold, plus savings at first base and catcher, provide the Nationals wiggle room for increases in spots. So, $18-25 million annually for a third baseman is in play.

Second, the Nationals’ farm system needs to be taken into account. Their 2018 first-round pick, Mason Denaburg, had shoulder problems last year. Mike Rizzo said at the Winter Meetings that Denaburg is healthy and progressing. But, the early shoulder irritation for a high school pitcher who also had problems his senior year with biceps tendinitis provides his stock pause. He’s a would-be trade chip. So is Kieboom.

But, what is Kieboom’s value? What damage did it receive during his rocky, and brief, appearance in the majors last season? Did his potent hitting in the Pacific Coast League after being sent back mitigate his big-league struggles? 

Beyond Kieboom, the farm system’s next tier is manned by Luis Garcia, 2019 first-round pick Jackson Rutledge, Wil Crowe and Tim Cate, among others. Only Garcia is part of MLB.com’s top-100 prospects list (which is more of a guide than an industry standard).

So, when Bryant or Seager -- or anyone not named Arenado -- are mentioned, know where the Nationals are coming from. If they are positioned to take on money, they don’t want to use assets to do it (this is the Donaldson Scenario). If they can save money, find a solid player and retain the few high-end assets, then a trade could be in play (this would be the Seager Scenario, if Seattle pays some of the contract). 

The Bryant Scenario is the most appealing and challenging. He’s the best player of the group. However, acquiring him would be high-cost and short-term. Bryant has two years remaining before he can become a free agent -- with an outside shot at becoming a free agent after next season because of a grievance he filed against the Cubs for service-time manipulation. Obtaining him would likely focus on multiple pitching prospects.

There is no Arenado Scenario. Just a reminder.

Piled together, Washington is in a tough spot. What it has is not enough. What it needs will be costly.

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Nationals could be a landing spot for Kyle Seager if Mariners make him available

Nationals could be a landing spot for Kyle Seager if Mariners make him available

It was a difficult Wednesday evening for Nationals fans, who were forced to swallow a tough dose of reality when reports surfaced that Anthony Rendon was signing with the Los Angeles Angels.

That’s thrust the team into a thin third base market headlined by Josh Donaldson but doesn’t boast many viable options beyond him. Kris Bryant and Nolan Arenado were both mentioned in trade rumors during the Winter Meetings, but the Nationals would be hard-pressed to acquire either of them with the significant prospect capital that would be requested in return.

But another option emerged Thursday night when The Athletic reported that the “possibility is increasing” of the Seattle Mariners trading Kyle Seager. The 32-year-old veteran has hit just .236 since 2017 but has at least 20 home runs each of the past eight seasons. Originally thought to be untradeable, Seager has reportedly drawn the interest of “multiple teams.”

The Mariners signed Seager to a seven-year, $100 million contract after a 2014 season in which he posted a .788 OPS and won a Gold Glove. The wrinkle in Seager’s trade value, however, is a $15 million team option for 2022 that converts to a player option if traded. That would guarantee him $52 million over the next three seasons, giving pause to teams who might be wary about his ability to perform at the plate.

But with Donaldson expected to garner a four-year deal despite entering his age-34 season, Arenado signed for $234 million over the next eight years and the Chicago Cubs likely seeking top prospects in return for Bryant, Seager may be the most affordable option for a team like the Nationals.

Washington’s farm system ranks among the lower third of the league, boasting just two consensus top-100 prospects in Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia. The Nationals likely wouldn’t be able to compete with clubs that have deeper farm systems for Bryant, while Arenado is signed to a similar deal that Rendon just received. As for Donaldson, Washington is certainly in the running but is far from the only team interested and could very well lose out.

Seager presents All-Star upside and while he’d be due salaries north of $18 million each of the next two years with the 2022 player option, that would be at worst about the same average annual value Donaldson is likely to demand at two years older. In addition, Seager’s $19.5 million salary next season is just above Rendon’s 2019 total of $18.8 million, making the increase in payroll at the position would be marginal.

It’d by no means replace the production the Nationals lost when Rendon signed with the Angels, but trading for Seager would certainly be a more attractive option than signing the remaining third basemen left in free agency beyond Donaldson: Asdrubal Cabrera, Brock Holt, Todd Frazier, Pablo Sandoval and Maikel Franco, just to name a few.

Seattle doesn’t appear likely to make a trade anytime soon, but Seager’s trade availability will be worth watching as the offseason progresses.

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