- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Moving into the next part of his career is a continuing process for Ryan Zimmerman. The Washington Nationals have morphed during his 10 years with the organization. For several seasons, he was among the few reasons to head to the ballpark. Next season, he will be tested at a new position as he hopes his body holds up and the Nationals’ roster remains intact.

Most things took a downturn for Zimmerman last season. His OPS was its lowest in five years. The only time he played fewer games was as a 20-year-old September call-up in 2005. He hit .397 in 20 wide-eyed and torrid games then. In 2014, he played just 61 games because of a torn hamstring. He feels better now.

“Just rest and let it heal,” Zimmerman said. “We tried to kinda rush back so fast. Just gave it a month to really heal. Just sort of relaxed and enjoyed some time off.”

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An adjustment is under way for the 30-year-old Zimmerman. The plan is for him to play first base next season following Adam LaRoche’s departure. That keeps Anthony Rendon available at third base — or, if necessary, the currently unoccupied position of second base — and all other positions in order.

Jayson Werth will swap outfield corner positions with Bryce Harper, which will put Harper in right. Denard Span remains in center and Ian Desmond at shortstop. Zimmerman has played five career games at first base. They all came last season.

“I like it because I know how nice it is to have a good first baseman,” Zimmerman said. “I’ve been lucky to play with a couple really good first basemen. Being on the other side of the field, it’s comforting to know that you have a guy over there where if you get it close, he’s going to help you out a lot, and that’s what I’m going to work to be because I know how nice that makes you feel when you’re an infielder.

“But that’s going to take a lot of work. Everyone thinks you just go over to first base and kind of hide him there, but it’s a tough position. There’s a lot of things I have to learn, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

The position change isn’t the only alteration for Zimmerman. His face was not on any of the four enormous posters of players behind the stage at last Saturday’s NatsFest.

Rendon, Werth, Harper and starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg were the chosen group for the event’s largest individual players promotions. Zimmerman’s six-year, $100 million contract is looming along with questions about his health. He’s only entering the second season of the deal with an average annual salary of just less than $17 million.

The complication for the Nationals is that several young stars will be in line for massive paydays during the life of Zimmerman’s contract. He can become an unrestricted free agent in 2021.

“This group, we’re coming to a crossroads I think,” Zimmerman said. “Obviously after next year is a big year to see who will stay and who will go. But this whole organization, everyone gets along. The team, the chemistry, the core group of guys has been together some of us five or six years now.”

Zimmerman said he will be learning cutoff positioning, though that’s rudimentary baseball, with the switch to first. He’ll also have to navigate a different spin of the ball off the bat than he did during his time at third base.

However, he will not be in search of a guru to help him learn the position. Zimmerman said he picked things up from watching LaRoche. Manager Matt Williams also switched from third to first during his career. He also expects his experience playing the opposite infield corner will help.

“Other than that, it’s catch the ball, throw the ball,” Zimmerman said.

Shoulder and hamstring problems have limited Zimmerman’s ability to do that during the prior two seasons. LaRoche was girder steady in the field and clubhouse. Zimmerman is the same with the latter. The question for him will be if he is on the field often enough to replicate LaRoche’s averages of 26 homes runs and an .804 OPS the last three seasons.

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