WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Ryan Zimmerman set up at first base midway through Sunday morning to take ground balls. It is among the simplistic spring training activities Zimmerman expects to participate in more often this year. Last year, he worked mostly in the cage, on back fields and out of site. It became a thing that didn’t need to be a thing.
Zimmerman played only 85 games because of an oblique injury, cutting off momentum from his All-Star season the year before. He thinks the equation for success now, and even last year, is simple.
“The key for me is to stay on the field,” Zimmerman said Sunday. “Two years ago I did. Last year I didn’t. When I stay on the field, I still feel like I’m a really good player. And that’s the goal. Everything we do in the offseason and during the season is geared toward that.”
Zimmerman used part of this winter to reflect on what may have caused his oblique problem last year. He has repeatedly said he was healthy throughout spring training. His career output in April shows his typical streaky fluctuation. It does not appear tethered to how many spring training games he plays or whether they happen out of sight or in front of fans.
“I don’t think there’s any one thing we did,” Zimmerman said. “But things happen and you learn from them. I think it wouldn’t be very smart not to look back and try and see why something happened. I don’t think anyone can tell you exactly why it happens, but you have to learn from your mistakes and from what happened and use it toward this year. That’s the plan.”
Those plans are less impervious to derailment when younger. Zimmerman averaged 140 games played per year from age 21 to 28, including a run through all 162 when he was 22 years old. He’s averaged just 100 annually since his age-29 season.
This one carries intrigue not usually associated with his steady presence. The Nationals hold an $18 million option on Zimmerman next season. If he repeats 2017, they could pick it up. If he repeats 2018, they will not, then the complicated process of possibly cutting loose an organizational icon would begin. Zimmerman is aware. He wants to return. He’s willing to figure it out. The Nationals also have a strong interest in bringing him back, at this point. Those numbers will be figured out after the season, once Zimmerman entered the now treacherous waters of free agency should his option not be picked up.
Bryce Harper’s nameplate is usually back near Zimmerman’s in the Nationals clubhouse in West Palm Beach. New second baseman Brian Dozier is now in what was Harper’s spot. If you haven’t heard, Harper remains unemployed a day before position players are supposed to report. The process has rankled Zimmerman the same way it has his teammates.
“I don't think it takes a genius to see that something is going on,” Zimmerman said. “I don't know what it is, but there's too many good players out there that aren't on teams and this is an entertainment business. Fans should be able to see the best players in the world play, doesn't matter what team they're on. Him and Manny [Machado] obviously and throw [Craig] Kimbrel in there too, those are three I don't want to say generational but if you look at Kimbrel's numbers, it's pretty dumb what he's done and then Manny and Bryce have obviously done what they've done at the age that they've done it. So now you have guys that are not even old that aren't getting jobs either. We'll see what happens, it’s definitely trending in a bad direction.”
And those teams that are intentionally not trying to be competitive?
“I try and win everyday, I think that's kind of the point of sports,” Zimmerman said with a half-laugh. “That's kind of what the whole basis of professional sports is to try and win. When you have teams actively saying we'll go into this free agent market in win-now mode, I don't know that you should have to state that it's win-now mode, but I guess that's where we're at. I think that's troubling obviously. There's a lot of stock being put into the draft and prospects and young kids that are supposedly going to turn organizations around. There's a lot of legit big-league players that have done it for a long time and you know exactly what you’re going to get and you could build a pretty good team with those guys. But if you just want to make as much money as you possibly can, that's their right too I guess.”
Zimmerman’s thoughts are in line with what players have said all spring. Max Scherzer and Sean Doolittle are key Washington voices who expressed their displeasure and concern last week. Zimmerman’s turn came Sunday.
Monday will bring another round of ground balls. The rest of spring is expected to deliver 50 at-bats -- the number Zimmerman keys on -- and more time on his feet compared to last year. Hope for a full season is up after that.
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