VIERA, Fla. - For the last 4 1/2 seasons, there's been little question that Ryan Zimmerman would be the Nationals' No. 3 hitter. He's manned that spot in the lineup for three managers, with a parade of first basemen batting cleanup behind him.
But Zimmerman doesn't have any sentimental or symbolic claim to the spot. He hit cleanup on a handful of occasions last year, when manager Jim Riggleman was looking for better protection for first baseman Adam Dunn. Now, he might hit there permanently.
Riggleman said today he is leaning toward hitting Jayson Werth third and batting Zimmerman fourth on a regular basis, putting the Nationals' $126 million free agent signing in front of their All-Star third baseman. The manager talked to both players about the possibility, and asked for opinions from a handful of coaches. In the end, he decided he wants to see if the Nationals will benefit from putting Zimmerman in more RBI situations.
Werth and Zimmerman had identical .388 on-base percentages last year, but Werth's OBP had outpaced Zimmerman's in 2008 and 2009. The Nationals, though, don't have a sure thing in the No. 2 spot, and until that happens, they need to maximize their on-base potential at the top of the lineup. Werth, who's stolen 53 bases the last three years, is also more likely to score from second on a single than Zimmerman is.
"I'd like to have some men on base when Zimmerman comes up," Riggleman said. "And if Werth is that guy, that'd be real good."
Adam LaRoche will likely hit fifth against righties and sixth against lefties, Riggleman said. If that's how the Nationals are thinking, it makes an even stronger case for keeping Michael Morse heavily involved in their plans, since they don't have another right-handed hitter who's got the power potential he does.
Morse will hit fifth today against left-hander Jonathon Niese.
"LaRoche hits lefties OK. He's got a lot of years in the league. His numbers are OK against lefties," Riggleman said. "But I think if Morse is in the game and LaRoche is in the game, unless I see something to change my mind, with a left-handed pitcher on the mound, I don't want to have Zim with a left-handed hitter hitting behind him."
When Riggleman talked to Zimmerman, he got the same input he got last year when he moved the third baseman to the cleanup spot: Zimmerman couldn't care less.
"I would go to Zim and say, 'I'm thinking about hitting you behind Dunn today instead of in front of him,'" Riggleman said. "I talked to Dunn about hitting third. Both of them, I couldn't get the words out of my mouth (before I heard), 'I don't care.'"
So the Nationals will try Zimmerman this spring in the cleanup spot instead of his customary No. 3 hole. There's always been something ceremonial about hitting third in baseball, and Zimmerman batted over .300 for the first time last year. But sabermetrics have changed that philosophy somewhat, and now Zimmerman will get a chance to try a spot in the lineup that will ask him to be more of a run producer than he's ever had to be.