The Washington Nationals have never had exactly what they wanted at first base since they arrived in DC. Nick Johnson was perpetually injured, Dmitri Young had a single incredible bounce back year, and Adam Dunn was a left fielder until the Nats made him go to first base to make room for Josh Willingham. Dunn was also terrible defensively. Michael Morse did a great job there last year, but he may not be a long-term solution at first because of his defensive liabilities. One guy fits the bill of exceptional power with superb defense, and he already plays for the team: Ryan Zimmerman.
The Nationals lost (or won, if you consider the financial implications) the Prince Fielder sweepstakes, but it may have been for the best. Ryan Zimmerman is a Gold Glove-winning defender and a Silver Slugger-winning hitter at a corner infield spot. The major drawback to Zimmerman’s defense is a propensity for injury when he throws. He missed 58 games last year with an oblique injury that required surgery. He returned with a brand new throw to take some pressure off the right muscles and tendons, but he certainly has sacrificed some accuracy in the process.
A move to first base for Zimmerman would accomplish two very significant things. First, it would all but eliminate his need to throw the baseball, except for a few times per game. Second, it would open the spot for the team’s #2 prospect Anthony Rendon at third base. Patrick Hilley wrote this morning that Steve Lombardozzi might be the odd man out due to Rendon’s move to second base, but I argue that Ian Desmond might find the door earlier than Lombardozzi, who could easily still end up at second. That’s a conversation for a different post, though. Zimmerman’s prowess at the opposite corner would still be valuable, and it would prevent the team from having to convert yet another prospect out of his natural position. The Nationals have converted Danny Espinosa, Michael Morse, and Bryce Harper to new positions in their minor league system just to name a few, and while this is common, the fewer players that have to learn a new position, the better off they’ll be.
Comparing Zimmerman to Nationals first basemen from the recent past certainly doesn’t make the case for him at first any worse. Over the last three seasons, Zimmerman posted an .869 OPS and averaged 98 RBI over 162 games. Both Michael Morse and Adam Dunn posted a .910 OPS, while Morse projected 91 RBI and Dunn 107 over 162 games when evaluating the seasons when the spent the majority of their time at first base. All three players reached base in over one-third of their at-bats. The thing that Zimmerman has that the other two don’t: superb defense.
There is an issue worth noting here. In the near future, Bryce Harper will make his MLB debut, and Jayson Werth will settle back in right field when the Nationals land a true center fielder, presumably by the end of the next offseason. That leaves Michael Morse without a landing spot if Zimmerman has been moved to first base. That’s a problem that can be fixed in several ways, though. Morse could be packaged in a trade for some mid-to-high level prospects; his value has never been higher, and the Nats bought out his arbitration time this offseason. He could also be used as a bench/utility player. Remember, Morse was stellar in the 2010 season off the bench, and he has played every position but second base and center field in his MLB career. It wouldn’t be the ideal situation considering the defensive concerns, but it would be a way to get him regularly in the line up. This is the type of problem you want to have, but the team will always favor their franchise player in Zimmerman over someone like Morse. It’s an easy call for the front office.
Ryan Zimmerman could be a permanent solution at first base for the Nationals. He’s a power bat that hits for average, and he’d immediately be one of the best defensive first basemen in baseball. He’d also be subject to less wear-and-tear, which would likely prolong his career. Remember, the Lerners pockets will be getting a lot lighter when they extend Zimmerman to a big deal in the next year or so, and they want to see him around DC and healthy for a long time. It would also allow a Five-Star prospect, Anthony Rendon, to stay at third base, the position he’s most comfortable with. This type of move would be a win-win for the Nationals and their fans, and it could help ensure long-term success on the field and in the owner’s bank accounts.