- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2008

VIERA, Fla. — There’s almost an anticlimactic air about Ryan Zimmerman this spring. For all the talk about the 23-year-old third baseman being the face of the Washington Nationals, his is easy to miss.

He has staked out the corner locker at Space Coast Stadium — a spot traditionally reserved for the clubhouse leader — and that has allowed him to slip in and out backdoors without much attention.

He hasn’t drawn much more on the field. Yes, he’s leading the team in homers and RBI this spring and is second in batting average despite playing just 11 games, but most of the spotlight has gone to the new arrivals, the injured veterans or the pleasant surprises.

But somewhere in there is possibly the highest compliment for Zimmerman heading into his third season: He has reached the point that it’s simply expected he will excel.

“This guy shows up to camp ready to go,” manager Manny Acta said. “He had nothing to work on right until the bell rings.”

That’s the kind of confidence usually reserved for a veteran with six 30-homer seasons under his belt, not a third-year player who has driven in 100 runs once. But it reflects the Nationals’ belief that Zimmerman is on the cusp of a breakout season — and the reality that he will need to have one if Washington is going to improve.

Everything is certainly set up for the former Virginia player to join the stratosphere of baseball’s elite players. He will have a healthy Cristian Guzman and Lastings Milledge in front of him in what should be a more hitter-friendly ballpark than RFK Stadium. First baseman Nick Johnson, enjoying a strong spring after missing 2007 with a broken leg, should give Zimmerman more protection. And there’s plenty of money to be made if Zimmerman can continue to produce.

He knows, however, it’s up to him to make the leap.

“When it comes down to it, it’s you up there,” he said. “As much as people talk about if you’re going to get good pitches, it ultimately comes down to you executing when you’re at the plate.”

Zimmerman had surgery in November to remove a broken bone in his left wrist. That was the first injury of his career, and he wasn’t sure how it would affect him at the start of the season.

But he went 2-for-2 in his first game and has a hit in all but two games this spring. He also has struck out only five times in 37 at-bats after fanning a combined 245 times the last two seasons, something he hopes is a harbinger of a more disciplined approach at the plate.

He’s quick to qualify his rookie year stats — a .287 average, 20 homers and 110 RBI — with the knowledge that pitchers were still figuring him out in 2006. And the dip in performance last year (.266, 24 homers, 91 RBI with 39 more at-bats) was partially because of the new approaches teams took to him.

By now, though, Zimmerman said he feels sure enough in himself not to second-guess on every at-bat.

“Every pitch, you have to make an adjustment. You step out of the box every pitch and kind of rethink your plan,” he said. “You’ve got to stick with your plan. A lot of times you go up there saying, ‘Maybe if he gets ahead, you’ve got to look off-speed,’ and then you get up there and you’re like, ‘He’s going to throw a fastball.’ And then he throws an off-speed pitch, and you take it. You’ve got to learn to trust yourself.”

It’s easy for the Nationals to see that confidence has developed. Neither Acta nor hitting coach Lenny Harris says much to Zimmerman, preferring to treat him like an accomplished veteran and knowing he will act like one.

“He’s the type of guy you don’t have to give too much information to,” Harris said. “The only thing I tell him is to slow down with guys in scoring position because sometimes he gets a little rowdy and wants to make it happen so quick. He’s like his own hitting coach. When he gets into trouble, he knows what he’s doing [wrong].”

If the 2005 first-round pick keeps improving, there’s a big raise in his future. He is arbitration-eligible next season and can become a free agent in 2012, but Washington could buy out those arbitration seasons with a contract extension.

Considering the kind of cash being handed out to his contemporaries (24-year-old Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera agreed to an eight-year, $152 million extension this week), Zimmerman won’t come cheap.

“It’s a good time to be young and have your contract [coming up] in the game. Everybody knows that,” he said. “It’s not good for just the players. The reason there’s so much money is because we have more fans than ever. But if you get caught up in trying to do stuff to make more money, you get away from it being a game and being fun, and that’s what makes you good. [The Nationals] know I don’t want to leave, and it’s a good fit for me. It’s an exciting time.”

That excitement has been spread just about everywhere else this spring. But it should come Zimmerman’s way soon.

“He has the chance to win an MVP, Gold Glove, be an All-Star,” Harris said. “Who knows, this year could be a big year for him.”