VIERA, Fla. - The chatter about Ryan Zimmerman eventually moving to first base has been going on for some time now. And while we don’t know where Zimmerman will be playing the majority of his games two years from now, we do know that he’ll get at least a little bit of playing time at first this season.
New Nationals manager Matt Williams told Zimmerman this offseason that he wanted him to get a first baseman’s mitt in preparation for this spring, where Zimmerman will get some work on the other side of the diamond from his usual spot at third base. Initially, that will happen during infield drills. Then, it will happen in Grapefruit League games. And eventually, Williams plans to use Zimmerman at first base during some regular season contests, as a way to give Adam LaRoche a strategic day off.
“He’s going to be playing third base 99 percent of the time,” Williams said. “But we want to make sure that he’s comfortable over there. That happens in early work. That happens in extra work. He’s told me he’s more than willing to do that and excited about doing that.
“During the season, (we’ll use him at first in) a situation where we can stack the lineup. You use the scenario, some tough left-hander - Clayton Kershaw as an example. You want to try to stack your lineup if you can against Clayton. He’s tough on everybody. But if you have that opportunity, we want to be able to do that. He would provide that over there for us. Certainly, Tyler Moore would provide that over there. We have options. But we want to make sure he’s comfortable doing it if we decide to do it.”
Williams has made it clear to Zimmerman that this move from third base to first base will not be a frequent occurrence, but more something that will happen when it gives the Nats a matchup advantage, with the left-handed LaRoche taking a seat.
One might think that it would be a bit awkward asking a player like Zimmerman, who is an established star, a Gold Glove winner at third base and the proverbial “Face of the Franchise,” to try out a new position. Williams said that wasn’t the case.
“He wants to win,” Williams said. “If he helps us win by playing some first base, that’s great by him, and certainly great by me. He’s not worried about that. He understands that he’s our third baseman. It’s on a temporary basis if we want to gain an advantage with our lineup. Nothing further than that.”
Zimmerman met with reporters after working out on the field at Space Coast Stadium today, and was asked about his conversation with Williams this offseason when the first base topic was broached.
“I told him, ‘Hey, I’ll do whatever he thinks is best to help us win as many games as we can,’ ” Zimmerman said. “I don’t know if I’m ready for 65-70 games over there, but you never know. I think with the way I finished over (at third base last year), the way my arm feels now, I think I can help this team win more games at third base. But if there’s an opportunity for me to play 10-15 games at first base and it helps us win some of those games, then I’m down to help out any way I can.”
That said, later on in the conversation, Zimmerman made it clear that he still has his eyes set on being the Nationals’ starting third baseman for the next while.
“If I can help the team at third,” Zimmerman said, “I’d like to stay there for a majority of the time for as long as I can.”
Zimmerman hasn’t played first base at any advanced level, so it’s not like he has some past experience over there that he can lean on. He did pick up a first baseman’s mitt this offseason and played catch with it a few times to get used to it and break it in, but that’s really been it to this point. Starting sometime in the coming days, he’ll likely begin getting some grounders over at first during early drills, working on his footwork, reading the ball off the bat and learning the finer aspects of the position, like knowing which pitchers like to throw over to first a lot and how the cut-off angles work on the right side of the diamond.
“For some reason, everyone just thinks that’s where they put the adult softball guy and he can play big league first base, which is not the case,” Zimmerman said. “I’ll work at it. (Williams) made it very clear, and I respect him for that, that he doesn’t want me to feel uncomfortable or put me in any situation to fail. He wants to make sure that I feel comfortable over there and know what I’m doing before he puts me over there.”
Williams personally knows how tough a transition moving from third to first can be. He was a four-time Gold Glove award winner at third base in his playing days, but played 13 games at first base for the Giants in 1996.
“I’ve done it. It’s hard,” Williams said. “When you go to the other side of the infield, it’s hard. The ball’s react differently off left-handers’ bats than they do right-handers’ bats. If you play on that side of the infield all the time, the game, when you move to that side, looks backwards to you. Everything he does at third base, he goes to his left. Everything he does at first base, he seems to go to his right. He has to get used that. Those little things that you have to do on the other side of the diamond, that’s what we have to make sure he’s comfortable with, in case we need to do that one day.
“I can’t tell you how many games it would be. If we get in the middle of a season, we want to feel comfortable we can put him over there, and that he feels comfortable over there if we have to do it.”