A few thoughts about Zimmerman in left field

As much as I’m happy to have Ryan Zimmerman back with the Nationals after an extended stay on the disabled list with a fractured right thumb, I can’t get on board with the team’s decision to turn its former All-Star third baseman into a utlility man who will play a little third base, a little first base and a little left field.

I think it’s a little - well, more than a little - strange.

For the record, I certainly understand what the Nats are doing. Manager Matt Williams and general manager Mike Rizzo are comfortable with the team’s current infield defense. They’ve gotten used to having Anthony Rendon man third base, and are satisfied with Danny Espinosa’s defense at second base even though Espinosa continues to spiral into a deep, dark offensive hole.

With Bryce Harper still sidelined after undergoing surgery to repair torn left thumb ligaments, and not due back until early July at earliest, there’s a need for someone in left field. Putting Zimmerman there moves Nate McLouth back into the role of fourth outfielder, which is what the Nats had in mind when they signed him to a two-year deal in December.

Playing Zimmerman in left field puts his bat into a lineup needing an offensive infusion. Playing him at third base occasionally allows him to keep those skills sharp. Having him man first base in place of Adam LaRoche against a tough left-hander puts him in a position to rake a southpaw that might overmatch LaRoche.

But do you really want to turn the longtime face of your franchise, your second-highest-paid player, into a role that’s defined only by its curiosity?

Yes, the pre-injury Zimmerman had some problems throwing, but I think he can get by with sidearm throws as his troublesome right shoulder gets stronger. No, he’s no longer the lockdown defender at the hot corner that he once was. But I still believe Zimmerman is a better third baseman than he is a left fielder or a first baseman. Remember, he’d never played outfield until a few days ago when he was in the middle of a minor league rehabilitation assignment with high Single-A Potomac. And he played all of two innings - two innings! - at first base in spring training.

The message here is mixed - or maybe mixed-up. Back in Viera, Williams made some nice wordplay when he said the Nats wanted Zimmerman focused on third base first and first base second. But the first-year manager has also said repeatedly that the only way to know how someone is going to adjust to a new position is by playing it. And Zimmerman is about to embark on what amounts to major league on-the-job training, which is always a little dicey.

This isn’t shagging flies in batting practice, this is game speed where runners are going to challenge your arm and an indirect route to a fly ball can mean the difference between a single and a double, a win or a loss. No matter how great an athlete Zimmerman is, there will be growing pains.

And what happens when Harper comes back? The Nats aren’t going to put him in center field, where he’d need to roam far and wide to compensate for Zimmerman’s lack of experience in left and Jayson Werth’s year-older legs in right. That’s Denard Span’s domain for now, and since he’s a veteran center fielder, he can handle the extra steps. For now, Span gets to whatever he can and Zimmerman learns that the foul line is his friend.

So when Harper returns, he slots back in left and Zimmerman’s positional load is reduced to third and first bases? Maybe the Nats are putting an artificial deadline on Espinosa to shake out of his batting funk, or they’re hoping against hope that he gets hot enough in a short spurt to attract some trade interest. But most teams make a move to solve a problems, not create them.

Unless the Nats fall out of contention in a hurry, LaRoche isn’t going anywhere. While a hot LaRoche would certainly be an interesting trade chip, the veteran first baseman is one of the most well-liked guys in the clubhouse, as close to a conscience as the Nationals possess. Make no mistake, the Nats are not interested in exercising their half of the mutual option that would pay LaRoche $15 million in 2015. This is his swansong, and Zimmerman is his presumed replacement next season, with Rendon at third and, well, someone at second (offseasons are much more fun when there’s a hole on the roster to fill).

Everyone expected Zimmerman to eventually move across the diamond, and next year was already circled on the long-range calendar. Out of deference to LaRoche, no one said as much in spring training, but everyone knew that was why Zimmerman was getting acquainted with a first baseman’s mitt. It’s nothing against LaRoche, mind you, it’s just how the game is played. As in chess, you think several moves ahead on all fronts - or you find yourself backed into a corner with fewer options to choose from.

If the Nats’ goal here is to increase Zimmerman’s versatility to improve his value to the team, well, I’ll buy that. But that doesn’t seem to be the message coming from South Capitol Street. Zimmerman is saying all the right things - it’s only a little further than third base, he’ll still have to make accurate throws, he’ll still be able to help his team. But I’ve yet to hear him sound enthused about the move.

Because of the kind of player he is - team needs first - he likely won’t complain publicly. He’ll be under a microscope every time he trots to left, and he’ll have to answer to every poor throw, indecisive route or runner that scores on a gamble by a third base coach (and trust me, they will gamble and test Zimmerman until he proves he can make that throw).

Can the positional switch work? Sure, but only in the short term, and it’s only a few weeks before Zimmerman is back at the hot corner. I’d feel a lot better if the Nats would just call this what it is - a trial to see what they have - instead of trying to pass off a Band-Aid approach as sound baseball logic.

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