For a 30-36 team, the Nationals couldn't be riding back into town on a much bigger surge of optimism than they are right now. They just returned from a grueling 11-game, three-city trip on the West Coast - which is supposed to be a death knell for East Coast teams - with their first winning record on a multi-city trip since May 2008. And, they'll have their franchise player in the lineup tonight for the first time in six weeks.
Ryan Zimmerman will be back at third base for the Nationals tonight, having recovered from abdominal surgery and returned to a team that managed to go 27-31 without him despite posting a putrid .662 OPS and scoring an average of 3.7 runs per game.
There's almost no question Zimmerman will make an impact. He'd started the year on a tear, with a 1.022 OPS in his first eight games. He'd played so well that despite the fact he's only played eight games this year, he's the 19th-most valuable third baseman in the game this year, with a Wins Above Replacement score of 0.6.
He can't be expected to keep that pace up - over 162 games, it would have equaled a 12.2 WAR, which would have been one of the greatest seasons in baseball history - but it does give some idea of the impact Zimmerman is capable of making in a short time. He'll allow Jerry Hairston Jr. and Alex Cora to go back to being utility players, which is where they're probably best, and he'll add another home run threat to a lineup that's managed to hit 54 in 58 games without him.
But despite their home runs, the Nationals are still having trouble scoring runs - and they had the same issue in the eight games where they had Zimmerman. As good a player as he is, Zimmerman can only do so much if he's batting with the bases empty. The guess here is the Nationals will keep Jayson Werth in the leadoff spot for now, to see how that looks with Zimmerman batting behind him, and hope that puts them in more run-scoring situations. Werth profiles nicely as a leadoff hitter; he takes pitches, runs the bases adroitly and draws walks even when he's not swinging the bat well. The Nationals would be better with a permanent solution at the top of the lineup so Werth could hit in more of a run-producing spot, but they're still in the mode of finding temporary fixes.
If that doesn't work, though, Zimmerman's impact will be muted. He had his best OPS in the majors last season, posting an .899 mark in 142 games, but only drove in 85 runs, which would have put him on pace for 96 in a 162-game season after he knocked in 110 the year before. That was because the Nationals' first and second hitters were so anemic at getting on base, and this year, they've been worse. If that doesn't change, Zimmerman could be reduced to putting up nice personal stats that don't win many games for the Nationals because there's no one to score when he's driving balls to the outfield or over the fence.
For now, the Nationals can be hopeful that Zimmerman's return will matter and they'll solve their season-long offensive problems with him in the lineup. Time will tell if that optimism is well-founded.