Future is on his shoulder

Ryan Zimmerman will have his injured left shoulder re-examined today, the first step in a rehabilitation process that could get the Washington Nationals third baseman back on the field soon.

Zimmerman, who has a slightly torn labrum, is eager to return to action and help his fast-fading Nationals get back on track before it’s too late and this season becomes a lost cause.

But is that the wisest decision he can make?

As much as Zimmerman would help Washington’s cause if he was back in the lineup on a nightly basis, he in turn might hurt his own cause. Rest and anti-inflammatory medication may make his shoulder feel better, but they’re not going to repair the labrum tear. Zimmerman either is going to have to play through it - something he believes is possible - or else have surgery.

If the latter scenario wins out, it may make more sense to have it taken care of now than after the season.

The Nationals don’t hide the fact they consider Zimmerman the face of the franchise. They practically put that lofty designation on him the day he was drafted in 2005. If the District is going to be home to a successful ballclub in the next three or four years, Zimmerman is going to be part of it.

So it’s in the organization’s best interests to have Zimmerman completely healthy for the long term. But not necessarily the short term.

This team isn’t suddenly about to resurrect its 2008 season and become a factor in the NL East. If Zimmerman returns next week and doesn’t miss any of the season’s final 3 1/2 months, what practical difference will it make on Washington’s win-loss record? At best, maybe he’s the difference between 70 wins and 75 wins. Certainly he’s not good enough to get them to 82 or beyond.

So what’s the point of throwing him back out there for the rest of the season with a bum shoulder, hoping it holds out until October and possibly beyond?

From a baseball standpoint, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. From a financial perspective, the situation is a bit more complicated.

As everyone knows, the Nationals and Zimmerman have held intermittent talks about signing a long-term contract for more than a year now. To date, neither side has come close to agreeing to terms. Zimmerman wants David Wright money (six years, $55 million); the Nationals are offering Troy Tulowitzki money (six years, $30 million).

The way things were going before he got hurt, the Nationals appeared to have the stronger case, and that only would be bolstered if Zimmerman misses a significant amount of games and runs out of time to turn his season around.

If, however, he somehow manages to play out the season and produce numbers like he did in 2006 and 2007 - say, a .280 average, 25 homers and 90-plus RBI - he suddenly has a lot stronger case, either through a long-term deal or, if not, through arbitration (for which he will be eligible this winter).

If Zimmerman really wants to hit paydirt, though, he might be better off sacrificing 2008 for the long-term good. Sure, he won’t break the bank in arbitration this winter (though he still will be a millionaire), but he will be better positioned to enter 2009 in peak form and put up the kind of numbers that will guarantee a major payday (either through arbitration or the much-awaited long-term deal).

This is not to suggest Zimmerman cares more about money than winning. Anyone who has spent any amount of time with him knows he’s the ultimate team player.

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