Health, not production, will again be key for Zimmerman in 2019

As our offseason coverage kicks into high gear, we’re going to review each significant player on the Nationals roster. We begin today with Ryan Zimmerman, who once again produced when he was healthy but once again wasn’t healthy as much as the Nats needed him to be.

PLAYER REVIEW: RYAN ZIMMERMAN

Age on opening day 2019: 34

How acquired: First-round pick, 2005 draft

MLB service time: 13 years, 32 days

2018 salary: $14 million

Contract status: Signed for $18 million in 2019. Club holds $18 million option or $2 million buyout for 2020.

2018 stats: 85 G, 323 PA, 288 AB, 33 R, 76 H, 21 2B, 2 3B, 13 HR, 51 RBI, 1 SB, 1 CS, 30 BB, 55 SO, .264 AVG, .337 OBP, .486 SLG, .824 OPS, 114 OPS+, 2 DRS, 1.4 fWAR, 1.3 bWAR

Quotable: “I know not playing in games is weird, hasn’t been done a ton. That’s not saying I won’t play in any games. Just kind of one of those things where it’s just gone this way so far, and I don’t know if there is a certain timetable. But what I want to tell you guys is: If the season was to start today and this is what I had, there’s not a doubt in my mind that I’m ready to go.” - Zimmerman on March 20

2018 analysis: On the heels of perhaps the best season of his career, Zimmerman surprised many with his spring training plan to play almost exclusively in minor league games and not with his teammates in official Grapefruit League action. All along, he knew he’d be putting extra pressure on himself to get off to a good start, and that he’d be subject to criticism for his unorthodox preparation. And sure enough, when he opened the season 4-for-39 with one homer and a .417 OPS, the criticism came in heaps.

Zimmerman-Swing-Gray-SF-Sidebar.jpgTo his credit, Zimmerman started to get hot in late April and hit .316 with four homers and a .975 OPS during a 15-game stretch that came to a halt when he suffered a right oblique strain diving for a ball in early May. He wound up spending more than two months on the disabled list, finally returning when the second half of the season commenced July 20.

Once healthy, Zimmerman returned to the form we’ve come to expect of him when he’s been healthy during his career. In 52 games after the All-Star break, he hit .295 with eight homers and a .911 OPS. His Aug. 22 walk-off homer against the Phillies’ Seranthony Dominguez was the 11th of his career, only two shy of Jim Thome’s all-time record.

Despite the strong finish, Zimmerman’s lengthy absence from the lineup earlier in the year hurt the Nationals. And this was not a new development. For the third time in five seasons, he played in fewer than 100 games.

2019 outlook: For all the time spent wondering if 2018 would be Bryce Harper’s final season in Washington and if 2019 will be Anthony Rendon’s swan song, we often overlook the fact that 2019 very well could be the end of the road for Zimmerman. Yes, that $100 million extension he signed way back in February 2012 only guarantees his contract through the 2019 season. His salary, which has held steady at $14 million each of the last five years, now jumps up to $18 million next year. The Nats hold an $18 million option for 2020, or they could elect to buy him out for $2 million.

Could this be it for Zim? He’ll be 35 by the time next season ends, with a lot of mileage on that body after 14 full major league seasons. It’s entirely possible he’ll come to the decision it’s not worth all the time and effort needed to get (and keep) his body in shape to play every night.

First things first, though: Zimmerman needs to do everything in his power to keep himself on the field for more games in 2019 than he did in 2018. The process will begin this winter, with manager Davey Martinez encouraging him to alter his agility workouts. And it will continue next spring, one in which he will be expected to participate in more big league games than he did this spring.

The Nationals know enough to know they can’t simply count on Zimmerman to play 130-plus games, and so they’ll once again be in the market for a left-handed fallback option at first base. But they also know fallback options aren’t as productive as a healthy Zimmerman, and so they’ll once again cross their fingers and hope the longest-tenured player in franchise history can find a way to keep himself in the lineup for what could be his final season in a Washington uniform.

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