NEW YORK — The Washington Nationals placed Ryan Zimmerman on the 15-day disabled list with a left hamstring strain Saturday evening and used the opportunity to temporarily replace their franchise cornerstone with 22-year-old top prospect Anthony Rendon — the man who may one day replace him at third base.
The expectation is that Zimmerman, who has struggled with a hamstring issue since at least Monday, will miss the minimum amount of time allotted by the disabled list. And when he’s eligible, which would be May 3 at the earliest, Rendon will likely return to the minor leagues to continue his development.
But for now, for the time being, the Nationals are bringing another young potential star into the mix.
“(Manager Davey Johnson’s) never been afraid to give a young player a chance,” said Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo. “He’s never been afraid to do that, and as an organization we’ve never been afraid to do that. Rendon is a guy who think is going to be a long-term part of the organization, so we thought it was a good time, until Zim gets back full-time.”
“He’s just going to be here during that time (that Zimmerman is down),” Johnson said. “We know he’s got the talent but he needs to get some games under his belt down there and to play a full season down there. But being shorthanded right now, we could use him.”
On Friday, Zimmerman was optimistic that he would return to the Nationals lineup the following day. But that hope was dashed when he was sent for an MRI at noon on Saturday, which revealed a strain. Doctors agreed, however, that only about 10 days of rest, of which he’s three days into, should be necessary and Zimmerman called that one of the best-case scenarios they could’ve gotten.
Zimmerman felt that if he absolutely had to, he could play. But playing at less than his full health seemed like a recipe for disaster to all involved and the Nationals did not want to patch things together with a short bench any longer.
“The truth is, you play that way for long enough, pretty soon you’re going to do something to make it way worse,” Zimmerman said. “I’ll take the 7-10 days to get it right and then we’ll be good to go.”
And as they did right around this time last season when Zimmerman required a brief disabled list stint for this right shoulder, the Nationals are not being timid in who they call up to replace him. Last year it was Bryce Harper, this year it’s Rendon.
“I’m very excited,” the 20-year-old Harper said, breaking into a wide smile when informed of Rendon’s impending promotion.
“I think that’s awesome. Sucks that Zim’s going on the DL but I’m excited for Rendon to get up here. I think he’s a special talent. It’s exciting to have a guy like that. It’s going to be fun to watch him play.”
There were several factors that went into the Nationals’ decision to call up Rendon, a quick-wristed infielder who has drawn raves for his sweet swing ever since his first days with the organization. The Nationals’ top pick (sixth overall) in the 2011 draft, Rendon is hitting .292 with two homers in 14 games at Double-A Harrisburg. He has 14 walks to only nine strikeouts and is carrying a .962 OPS.
And that’s come after he thoroughly impressed them during his time in major league camp this spring, which he left hitting .375 in 32 at-bats with a .412 on-base percentage and a .875 slugging percentage. He hit four home runs, four doubles and struck out only six times.
The Nationals also wanted to fill the hole left by Zimmerman’s injury with a natural third baseman, to allow Steve Lombardozzi and Chad Tracy to return to their regular roles on the team’s bench and not weaken their team in multiple areas.
He’ll get thrown right into the fire, starting at third base on Sunday in the Nationals’ finale with the New York Mets against right-hander Dillon Gee.
“I don’t like to bring a youngster up and have him sit,” Johnson said. “That’s going to do him no good and he’s swinging the bat pretty good down there. He had a good spring for us. It’s no slight against some of the guys I’ve got here who’ve filled in in the past, but this will give him some experience up here.”
While he’s doing that, from the dugout, Zimmerman will watch and get healthy.
“I’ll be his biggest fan,” Zimmerman said. “Lucky for us we have guys like that who can step up and do things like this. Obviously Anthony’s young and sooner rather than later he’s going to be making an impact at this level on a daily basis. It’ll be nice to see him and give him a little taste of it.
“I want him to come up and do as well as he can to help us win. That’s the ultimate goal. It’s a team. You never know what’s going to happen during a six-month period. This is kind of one of the first speed bumps we have, but hopefully Anthony can come up and do fine and help us out until I’m ready to go.”