Dave Nichols: What do the Nats do when - or if - Zimmerman returns?

The Nationals have taken their lead in the National League East and run with it. At the start of play Tuesday, they enjoy a seven-game lead over the Atlanta Braves, who have been mired in mediocrity for weeks now - and were no-hit Monday afternoon by a group of Philadelphia Phillies pitchers.

Additionally, with Monday’s 6-4 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Nats have wrested the mantle of winningest team in the entire NL, owning one more victory than their hosts for the next two days. Of course, the Nats also have two games in hand over the Dodgers, so their winning percentage is even stronger than a one-game lead in the win column.

All this plays into a larger question for down the stretch. When - or more likely if - Ryan Zimmerman returns from his hamstring tear, where will he play?

The Nats dealt for Asdrubal Cabrera at the trade deadline and he’s been everything they could have asked for, if not more. He’s hit, changed positions and played stellar defense - all with nary a peep. As a two-time All-Star, he could have pitched a fit about being asked to switch positions. But all he’s done is what he’s been asked, and excellently.

That sort of precludes Anthony Rendon from moving back over to second base. And why would the Nats want to do that anyway? Rendon is eighth in the league in WAR according to Baseball-Reference.com and 11th in all of baseball according to FanGraphs. He is a legitimate MVP candidate, with many of the others ahead of him in WAR standings playing for non-contenders.

Earlier this season, Zimmerman dabbled in left field when injuries were rampant on the team. But with Bryce Harper healthy, and rounding into baseball shape and hitting .324/.365/.603 with six homers and 12 RBIs since Aug. 12 (coincidentally, when I wrote about him in this space, preaching patience), there’s just no room for Zimmerman in the outfield, either.

Realistically, where do the Nats put the face of the franchise if he’s able to return from his injury?

The minor league season will be long over before Zimmerman will have a chance for a rehab assignment, so any hacks he’ll get before activation will on a back field in Viera, or in a cage underneath Nats Park. Neither situation is ideal for tuning up for major league pitching. Zimmerman is usually rusty for a couple of weeks when returning from a DL stint anyway. We’ve seen enough evidence of that the past several seasons.

It’s entirely possible that Zimmerman will be relegated to pinch-hitter and possibly a platoon partner for Adam LaRoche against left-handed pitching in the final week of the regular season. Should the Nationals qualify for the playoffs, a more plausible scenario by the day, can you carry a completely one-dimensional player like that? They’ll probably have to pinch-run for him in most instances so he could be a very limited contributor.

And who do they leave off the roster? Kevin Frandsen, a guy that can play multiple positions? Danny Espinosa, the only legitimate backup shortstop in the entire organization? Scott Hairston, their right-handed pinch-hitter all season?

The Nats would certainly want a healthy Ryan Zimmerman available to them at all costs if they were to qualify for the playoffs. It would be a no-brainer to leave any of the above-mentioned players off the roster in favor of him. He means more to this team than just the production he brings on the field. It’s hard to imagine him not on a Nats playoff roster.

But if his contribution is simply as a pinch-hitter, or just the specter of being available as a pinch-hitter, is that worth more than a completely healthy player that has contributed all season long?

Dave Nichols is editor-in-chief of District Sports Page and co-hosts the “Nats Nightly” Internet radio show. Read Nichols’ Nationals observations 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.

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