Zimmerman still working to rebuild confidence in throwing shoulder

VIERA, Fla. - I’ve now been in Florida for a week, and already I’m at the point where I’m falling asleep at 9:45 p.m.

That might be the norm for some people, but I’m typically a guy who can’t shut it down for the night until at least 1 a.m., if not later. Every year, without fail, this is an assignment that turns me into a grandpa when it comes to my bedtime.

Ryan Zimmerman will be an interesting guy to watch this spring on a couple of different levels. First, there’s the wholestory involving him starting to get some playing time at first base, a position that he hasn’t played since Little League. In those years, as Zimmerman jokingly put it yesterday, “if you can catch the ball, you play first base.”

But on top of the 29-year-old Zimmerman getting some work at a new position, there are also the standard questions about the strength in his throwing shoulder that will need to be answered this spring.

For the first time in a while, Zimmerman enters spring training feeling like his right shoulder is in the type of shape that it should be. It took him a while to build up to this point after surgery on the shoulder in the winter of 2012, but Zimmerman is finally at a point now where he’s able to come into camp with the shoulder feeling strong and healthy, to where he can really test it in the early stages of spring.

zimmerman blue throwing sidebar.jpg“It’s nice, and to have a whole offseason to lift and get strong and to have the program that I’ve had in the past,” Zimmerman said. “I haven’t really been able to have that for the last two or three offseasons just because I’ve had certain injuries or things I’ve had to take care of. ... To be able to do that, now the arm feels good and I’ve just got to take groundballs and stuff.”

While Zimmerman was the Nationals’ opening day third baseman last year and played in 141 games at the position, he’s used the term “rehab year” to describe his 2013 season. His shoulder definitely wasn’t full strength early in the season, which was evident in the way he was playing defensively.

Zimmerman made 21 errors on the year (most of them of the throwing variety), and 14 of them came in his first 66 games played. He lobbed throws across the diamond without their typical zip, which caused him to have to play shallower than he usually does.

Down the stretch, however, Zimmerman’s strength and accuracy returned. He started whipping throws across the diamond, making diving stops and looking like his old self at third base. He made just two errors in his final 33 games played, and only one of those was of the throwing variety. He also crushed 11 homers in September last season, including seven in a seven-game span.

Zimmerman will use that stretch as a building block as he comes into this season, but interestingly enough, if you think that those final six weeks or so are enough to reassure Zimmerman that his shoulder is back where it needs to be, you’d be mistaken. He still isn’t entirely sure that’s the case at this point.

“I’m a lot more confident, obviously, but for me, I think I need to have a year like I used to have,” Zimmerman said. “Play third base like I know I’m capable of and like people expect me to play. Then once I go a year doing it and being consistent, that’s when you can really say the shoulder’s fine. Until we go through this year, I don’t think you really know. ...

“My shoulder’s fine, it’s just a matter of going out there and playing like the last six weeks, seven weeks, whatever, of last season where I played good.”

Zimmerman trusts that his shoulder is healthy and probably as strong as it has been in some time. But it will take time to repair the confidence that Zimmerman might have lost over the last couple years.

The good news is that the improved strength in his shoulder will allow Zimmerman to play a couple steps deeper at third than he was early in the season last year, and he’ll get to air some throws out this spring from a variety of spots and see how he feels. And if he can replicate the success that he had down the stretch in 2013, Zimmerman’s trust in his health should slowly continue to build.

Here’s today’s quote of the day, written atop the morning schedule sheet: “If not you, then who?”

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