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Nats third baseman Ryan Zimmerman will see some time at first base in 2014

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 18, 2014

VIERA, FLA. -- He still rolls his eyes at the term, but Ryan Zimmerman remains the face of the Nationals. Nothing else about the franchise has been as steadfast since the team arrived in the District in 2005 than the man who has occupied third base for almost a decade.

The day may come soon, though, when Zimmerman has to switch positions. No one with the team will say it's imminent. It may not be. But at age 29, for the first time, Zimmerman expects to play at least a handful of games at first base this season. It's not a surprise.

New Washington manager Matt Williams broached the subject with Zimmerman in conversations over the winter and a first baseman's mitt already sits in his locker at Space Coast Stadium.

"I don't know if I'm ready for 65, 70 games over there, but you never know," Zimmerman said. "I think with the way I finished over [at third base in 2013], the way my arm feels now, I think I can help this team win more games at third base. But if there's an opportunity for me to play 10, 15 games at first base and it helps us win some of those games, then I'm down to help out any way I can."

But circumstances have brought the Nats to this point. Zimmerman's arm strength wasn't where it needed to be much of last season following right shoulder surgery after the 2012 season. His throwing motion, streaky throughout his career, turned erratic with 16 of his 21 errors coming while throwing the ball and only five while attempting to field it. Are those problems behind him? Or are they just part of who he is as a player? Zimmerman's confidence was buoyed by his play late last year. But he needs more than that to feel like his old self.

"I'm a lot more confident obviously, but for me, I think I need to have a year like I used to have," Zimmerman said. "Play third base like I know I'm capable of and like people expect me to play. Then once I go a year doing it and being consistent, that's when you can really say the shoulder's fine."

There are other issues pointing to an eventual position switch. First baseman Adam LaRoche struggled in 2013. And while Washington general manager Mike Rizzo, and LaRoche himself, expects a rebound season, he is also 34 now and in the last year of his contract. There will be a hole at first base in 2014 if LaRoche isn't retained.

Zimmerman is signed through the 2019 season with a club option for another year. He will be here. Anthony Rendon, the No. 6 pick in the 2011 draft, played out of position last season at second base. His natural position is third base and he's still just 23. Time is on his side and he's an obvious in-house option if the Nats ever decide to move Zimmerman across the diamond.

All of those factors are known and have been in place for some time. But in baseball, thinking too far beyond the upcoming season is pointless. Circumstances can quickly change again. For now, Zimmerman is willing to spell LaRoche at first base. Williams insisted that he would be at third base "99 percent of the time."

"I don't think I should have any problems with [first base]," Zimmerman said. "I think I'm capable enough to handle it over there. But we'll see. Hopefully it's one of those things where I play a great third base and play over there every now and then when I need it and it helps us win some games."

There are times when the option to move Zimmerman would make sense. Against elite left-handed pitchers like the Los Angeles Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, the reigning Cy Young Award winner in the National League, it might be best to sit LaRoche, move Zimmerman to first and play Rendon at third. Stacking the lineup with right-handed batters would presumably give Washington a better chance.

"I've done it. It's hard," Williams said of moving from third to first. "When you go to the other side of the infield it's hard. The balls react differently off left-handers' bats than they do right-handers bats. If you play on that side of the infield all the time, the game, when you move to that side, looks backwards to you."

Williams, of course, was an All-Star third baseman himself during his playing career. In 1996 he started 12 games and played in 13 at first base for the San Francisco Giants. It was the only time he played a field position other than third base or shortstop during a 17-year big league career. And so that work, for Zimmerman, will begin in Viera over the next six weeks.

"Everything [Zimmerman] does at third base, he goes to his left," Williams added. "Everything he does at first base, he seems to go to his right. He has to get used that. Those little things that you have to do on the other side of the diamond, that's what we have to make sure he's comfortable with."

Zimmerman's right arm appeared to get stronger toward the end of last season. Never one to play a deep third base – few in the game are better at charging grounders – Zimmerman figures his renewed arm strength gives him a shot to play slightly deeper this season and allow him better field coverage.

But there are intricacies to work on – holding runners, taking pickoff throws, snatching relays from outfielders from different angles and spots on the field. Zimmerman doesn't plan on putting in "hours and hours" of work at it during spring training. He's quietly confident in his ability to pick up those nuances. And it isn't time for that kind of commitment. Not yet.

"[Williams] wants me to work at it because everyone, for some reason, just thinks you put someone over there and it's an easy position, which no position on the field is easy at this level," Zimmerman said. "Everyone just thinks that's where they put the adult softball guy and he can play big league first base, which is not the case. I'll work at it. He made it very clear, and I respect him for that, that he doesn't want me to feel uncomfortable or put me in any situation to fail."

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