A collective sigh of relief swept through Nationals Park when Ryan Zimmerman stepped up to pinch-hit in the eighth inning against the Atlanta Braves.
Although he struck out (a bit awkwardly, at that), the appearance was a sign that whatever is bothering Zimmerman’s troublesome right shoulder is not enough of a concern to keep him from swinging a bat. Zimmerman has insisted since he was first injured in 2012 that he does not feel any soreness at the plate, but this was a sure sign that the Nationals feel good enough about his offensive skills to look for ways to get him to the plate.
The diagnosis of inflammation but no structural damage also means that while a trip to the disabled list is still possible, it’s less likely that it will be a long one. However, manager Matt Williams seems determined to do whatever it takes to make sure Zimmerman can get back to playing every day, and that might still mean a few days away from the starting lineup.
Will Zimmerman ever be a reliable third baseman again? That’s debatable, but one thing for certain is that some of general manager Mike Rizzo’s moves in the past year have given the team more options to deal with the situation. Whether it means more days off for the 10-year veteran, removing him in the late innings for a defensive replacement, shifting him across the diamond to first base or - in the worst case - an extensive absence, the team has some flexibility to make those moves less painful. Here are three of the decisions Rizzo has made and their implications for Zimmerman:
* Not giving up on Danny Espinosa: How good is it to have a second baseman of Espinosa’s defensive skills on hand? Sure, he had to shake off a little rust in Sunday’s 2-1 victory over Atlanta, but being able to plug Espinosa in at second base and slide Anthony Rendon over to his natural position of third base is the first and best solution in late innings - or if Zimmerman can’t play at all. It instantly makes the Nats a better defensive team and it keeps Rendon’s potent bat in the lineup. Let’s not forget that Espinosa had a clutch walk on opening day and two doubles in this first start of the season.
* Signing Kevin Frandsen: The versatile Frandsen can man either of the infield corners or left field. Putting him at third base might be the best option if Zimmerman’s troubles keep him out of the lineup for an extended time; especially if the offense is struggling. He had hits in two of the weekend games against Atlanta, so his bat is not a question mark.
* Improving the bullpen: This may seem like a bit of a stretch, but in a broader context, it makes sense. If Zimmerman misses significant time, or if he’s not available late in games, the offense will take a hit. The less pressure there is on the team to score runs, the better. That means an effective bullpen, especially early in the season when the starters are still working up stamina. If the Nats can keep games close or hold leads, Zimmerman’s bat won’t be missed as much in the late innings.
Zimmerman’s teammates and fans alike are concerned about whether he can maintain the level of play that made him the face of the franchise. The six-year, $100 million contract extension he signed in 2012 is just kicking in this season, and everyone involved wants to see it work out for both sides.
What the Nats need now is to take advantage of the depth Rizzo has cultivated and added, so Zimmerman can recover and give the team as much of his talent as possible.
Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.