- The Washington Times - Monday, April 7, 2014


OK, time for another show of hands, this one for Nationals fans or anyone else who regularly watches the team play: How many of you cringe, cower, duck, close your eyes, turn away or otherwise not watch whenever a groundball is hit to third baseman Ryan Zimmerman?

Exactly as expected. That would be most everyone these days.

Someone once said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. We’ve come to that point with Zimmerman.

This hasn’t been going on for a couple of weeks or a few months. This has been going on for more than two years. He’s had surgery, he’s had shots, he’s had rest. He’ll go a while without trouble and then the throws start spraying again. Is it mental? Is it physical? Is it both? Who knows?

What is known is it is there and a simple truth has to be accepted. Ryan Zimmerman can’t reliably throw anymore and it is a problem the Nationals must figure out — soon.

To say anything negative about a player and top-notch individual like Zimmerman is very hard.

He was the first player the Nationals took in the draft after the team relocated to Washington, chosen out of the University of Virginia with the fourth overall pick in 2005. He made his debut later that summer and is the only player to appear in at least one game every year the Nationals have existed.

Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond have all come along since, yet Zimmerman is still rightfully considered the face of the franchise. You could not ask for a better face. In addition to being an excellent player, he is by all accounts a solid citizen.

Without question, the Nats still need him in their lineup and want him in their lineup. He hasn’t had a Hall of Fame-type career. He’s made one All-Star team, won one Gold Glove, won two Silver Sluggers. He’s still among the better players in the game and we don’t have enough space to list all the times he’s delivered in crucial situations.

None of that changes the fact that his throwing problems are unlikely to go away.

Six games into a season isn’t enough time to reach many conclusions. A couple of things are already clear. One, the throwing problem still exists. Two, anyone who expected Atlanta to wither and die because it lost a couple of pitchers for the season is a fool.

Atlanta remains a very strong team even without Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy and a big reason is its pitching depth. The Braves have lost two games. They gave up two runs in each. They will be even better when the offense comes around.

The NL East is most likely going to come down to Washington and Atlanta and it will be tight, a couple of games at most.

Can the Nats afford to have two or three games get away because Zimmerman sails a throw at the wrong time?

General manager Mike Rizzo and first-year manager Matt Williams are extremely bright men. They have to realize this, even if they can’t come out and say it publicly. The problem with this problem is there’s no real easy solution for the current season.

Zimmerman did a bit of work at first base in spring training and it seems clear the plan is to have him move over there next season. Anthony Rendon can move from second to his natural position of third. Danny Espinosa (or someone acquired via trade or free agency) can play second. So there’s your 2015 infield.

But what about 2014? Adam LaRoche, in the final year of his contract, is the team’s first baseman and he’s already hit two home runs. Even in a “down” year last season, he hit 20 homers. He’s a strong defender and reliable bat. You can’t sit him and you can’t possibly get fair value for him in a trade. His presence is even more necessary with catcher Wilson Ramos out a while following hamate bone surgery.

There’s no designated hitter in the National League, so going that route is only an option in the 10 interleague games the Nats play in American League parks. That leaves 146 games, minus a few off days for rest, where the Nats have no clear option for Zimmerman other than third.

There’s a funny story, probably not 100 percent true, that’s been passed around baseball in recent years. Tommy Lasorda, the Dodgers manager, was talking to third baseman Pedro Guerrero about what he’d do in a bases-loaded situation. Guerrero was up-front. He’d pray the ball didn’t get hit to him. What else was he thinking, Lasorda asked? Don’t hit it to Sax, either, Guerrero said. Dodgers second baseman Steve Sax, like Zimmerman, became a liability with this throws.

Maybe that’s the best the Nats can do this year, keep Zimmerman at third and hope little or nothing gets hit his way. He still has an outstanding glove. On plays where he doesn’t have time to think, his throws are often spot-on. Those other plays? That’s when it is time to duck, cringe, cower and cover your eyes. To think that will change at this point is insane.

It’s sad. It’s also true.

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