More-involved Zimmerman wants more players to stay long-term with Nats

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Employee No. 11 reported for work this week at Nationals camp. The number of players left who actually were teammates with Ryan Zimmerman is dwindling, but the franchise icon still has a commanding presence when he walks into the clubhouse or onto a practice field, players young and old alike recognizing his significance.

Now entering his third season in retirement, Zimmerman wants to start taking a more hands-on role with the only organization that ever employed him. His official title is “special advisor for baseball and business operations.” His unofficial role: Be there to offer any and all insight he can. Not only to players and coaches, but also to front office members and even ownership.

“I know nothing about the other side,” the former star corner infielder said. “That’s my goal this year: To continue doing what I’m doing with the players, especially the young guys, but also for myself learn the ins and outs of the other side and become more knowledgeable, so that I can have better suggestions. It’s a learning year.”

What does that look like in practical terms? Zimmerman spends his mornings in uniform, working individually or in groups with players. He then spends his afternoons in meeting rooms with Nats coaches, general manager Mike Rizzo and his lieutenants. In the evenings, he might take some younger players out to dinner, getting to know them better and getting them to start building the kind of camaraderie with each other he insists is critical to team success.

The past two springs, Zimmerman would spend a week here. But with his family tagging along, his time and duties were pulled in opposite directions. This spring, the rest of the family stayed home in Northern Virginia, freeing him up to fully immerse himself in baseball again. He hopes to be more of a regular presence at Nationals Park during the season, as well.

“My kids are a little bit older, to the point where I can get away for a few days a month and it’s not a huge deal,” he said. “It’s nice to be around.”

Zimmerman, who (gasp!) turns 40 later this year, already got to know some of the team’s younger core players, including CJ Abrams, Keibert Ruiz, Josiah Gray and MacKenzie Gore, last season. He’s now getting to know the next wave of prospects participating in big league camp this spring and on the cusp of playing in D.C.: Dylan Crews, James Wood, Brady House and more.

The Nats also make sure he speaks to players in minor league camp, giving him an opportunity spread an important message to guys perhaps half his age about how to embark on their careers.

“I think the biggest thing with the young guys is just learning to create a routine,” he said. “Baseball’s such a sport of everyday grinding it out. You’re going to have good weeks, bad weeks. Don’t panic. Stay with the same thing. That’s part of spring. That’s part of minor league seasons: Learning what your routine is. By the time you get to the big leagues, you should have your routine.”

Zimmerman famously reached the big leagues less than three months after he was drafted fourth overall in the country in 2005. (He joked that he probably played more minor league games on rehab assignments than as a prospect, and he’s not far off: He played 67 games with Savannah and Harrisburg in 2005 before his debut, then 43 games with various affiliates on rehab assignments over the years.)

Crews, the second overall pick in last summer’s draft, played in 35 minor league games after signing and may not need a whole lot more this year before getting the call.

Zimmerman said he believes players should be promoted whenever they’re ready, no matter their age or experience level. But he also cautioned against rushing the process for the wrong reasons.

“This game sucks. It’s hard, man,” he said. “You do well three times out of 10, and you’re great. A lot of these kids have never struggled. You have to be conscious of that. The player development and minor league guys, I think they do a really good job here. But I think with this group, that’s what you have to be careful of. You don’t want to just bring them up because the fans want to see all these guys we traded for or drafted. It’s an easy thing to be excited about, but you have to do it because they’re ready. It’s only fair to them.”

Once they do reach the majors and reach their potential, Zimmerman hopes the organization is able to convince a number of these young stars to sign long-term extensions long before reaching free agency. He’s one of the only players in club history to do that himself, and he believes it’s a critical part of building a roster that can succeed long term.

“You’ve got to figure out a way to sign your players and make them want to be here,” he said. “Like: ‘Everything’s so good here, why would I go anywhere else?’ That’s the goal. Obviously, you have to fairly compensate them. I’m not saying you should just get everyone for cheap and they should sign these deals. But you want to create an atmosphere and an environment where they want to stay. I’m not saying we haven’t done that, but it is one of my goals to look around and see what that’s like.

“You can always get better at that stuff, and obviously other teams are doing it really well. If you want to keep guys and have teams that are good for a long time, you have to do it that way. There’s no way to let these guys have three good years and then try to sign them. It’s just impossible. You have to be proactive and create an environment where they want to stay. Try and do it early. It’s the only way to do it, and the only way to sustain it.”

Perhaps this week’s public revelation by Mark Lerner that his family is no longer actively seeking to sell the club after two years of uncertainty will help provide the kind of stability any player interested in a long-term deal wants.

While acknowledging the difficult situation everyone with the Nationals found themselves in the last two years, Zimmerman spoke highly of the Lerner family’s commitment to the organization during his playing days and spoke hopefully that the group will show that commitment again now.

“It’s not like they never spent,” he said. “The people who say they never spent, that’s a lie. We had good payrolls for the better part of 10 years. … Now that he came out and said we’re not selling the team, let’s do it again. And let’s do it the right way. Not that they didn’t do it the right way before. But I think what they’ve always done: They were very good at listening to players, and they made adjustments. They never owned a sports team before. It’s a lot different than real estate. Anytime we made suggestions, or as players talked to them, they were always very receptive, and they still are now.

“Hopefully, having some of us who have already been through it working with them, we can work together and continue to make it an even better organization. The players we’re talking about, assuming some of them do what they’re supposed to do, I don’t think you’re that far away. … I think it’s very exciting. They’re a great family. They care. They care about the city, they care about the fans. I think it’s fun to start over and hopefully build a repeat of what we did for those nine, 10 years.”

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