Ryan Sullivan: Zimmerman deserves criticism for Nats’ early struggles

In a rather quiet spring training for the Nationals, one of the biggest storylines for the team in West Palm Beach was the unique decision by Ryan Zimmerman to play only in one spring training game. Zimmerman instead preferred to get his work accomplished on the back fields, in games consisting of predominantly minor leaguers. Certainly, the fans that traveled to watch the team were disappointed to miss seeing the face of the franchise, but also were questioning the wisdom of this decision.

Zimmerman believes spring training is too long and there is merit to this, as the multiple weeks are more important to stretch out starting pitchers than getting hitters prepared. And Zimmerman has struggled with injuries the past several years, except in 2017, when he was one of the top first baseman in baseball, so he felt that playing in a more relaxed environment would be more conducive to staying healthy.

Unfortunately through the first 13 games of the season, this experiment looks like a bigger bust than Homer Simpson’s “The Homer,” as Zimmerman is batting .103/.186/.231 with 11 strikeouts in 39 at-bats. He appears to be out of rhythm at the plate, avoiding fastballs in the strike zone and swinging at breaking pitches in the dirt. Furthermore, he has looked shaky defensively at first base, failing to make a couple of plays in the field, and has not looked spry on the bases.

His struggles thus far have had a large effect on the team’s lack of offensive production, as he is the cleanup hitter and lineup protection behind Bryce Harper. Washington has scored two runs or fewer in six of the team’s first 13 games, and Harper is currently tied for most walks in the National League with 16. Opposing teams are choosing to pitch around Harper, who is hitting .286/.467/.714 with six home runs, and taking their chances with Zimmerman.

Which goes back to his decision to essentially avoid facing major league-quality pitching all spring in order to protect himself from injury. Manager Davey Martinez is new to the organization and a first-time manager, so he is in a difficult position to challenge Zimmerman on this unusual decision in February.

If I can digress a moment, a few years ago I was at a minor league game watching a big league player on a rehab assignment, and I was sitting next to an experienced scout. I asked him his thoughts on the value of these rehab games for established major leaguers and he responded: “Good for their confidence, but how can you prepare for big league stuff against guys in A-ball?”

This leads back to my point: While I do not believe this slump will have a large effect on his overall production in 2018, Zimmerman’s decision to avoid spring training games is perhaps the biggest reason Washington is currently 6-7 and in fourth place in the division. Without question, it is early, but Washington will continue to struggle offensively until Zimmerman rounds into form.

Ryan Sullivan blogs about the Nationals at The Nats GM and runs The Nats GM Show podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @NatsGMdotcom. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. 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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