The curious case at first base

Whenever the Nationals actually report to West Palm Beach, there will be plenty of position battles to dissect. You can pretty much go right up the middle of the field.

Will Keibert Ruiz get a strong hold of the starting catcher's spot? Who will fill out the back ends of both the rotation and bullpen? Who will start in the middle part of the infield? Can Victor Robles earn his spot in center field back from Lane Thomas? You can even throw in questions about Carter Kieboom at third base.

But one position that is seemingly set in stone is first base. That doesn't mean it's any less interesting, however.

Josh Bell will return as the starting first baseman in the last year of his contract. And although it's still up in the air, Ryan Zimmerman has said publicly this offseason that he's planning on playing in 2022, despite receiving what seemed like a farewell ovation from the crowd at Nationals Park on the last day of the season.

Thumbnail image for Nats-Park-WS-G5-Night-Sidebar.jpgNow Zimmerman, of course, can still change his mind and also mentioned that nothing is definite. But if he does decide to return for another season, general manager Mike Rizzo has said the 16-year veteran will have a spot on the Nationals roster.

Both of these players provide solid options at first base. And we saw them work well together in tandem last year.

But both players' futures with the team also put the Nationals at a couple of forks in the road.

Let's start with Bell. The 29-year old was acquired through a trade with the Pirates for right-handers Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean on Christmas Eve 2020. He struggled at the start of his Nationals career due to time missed on the COVID-19 list at the beginning of the regular season, hitting just .133 over his first 23 games.

But Bell was able to turn his season around in mid-May, hitting .287 with an .889 OPS over his last 121 games to end the year. He struck out at a career-low rate, used all parts of the field and improved his defense at first, showing signs that he can be the All-Star-caliber player the Nats had hoped for.

Here's Bell's fork in the road: He's going through the arbitration process for the third and final time, making him a pending free agent for the first time in his career after this season. The Nationals need to decide if Bell is their long-term first baseman of the future or not.

If he is, the Nationals might try to lock up Bell to an extension before he hits the free agent market. However, he is represented by super agent Scott Boras, who almost always advises his clients to test those waters before signing anything long-term.

If he's not the answer at first base, the Nationals will probably look to trade Bell before the deadline to at least get something in return for him before letting him walk in free agency.

Bell's production to start the season will play a big part in this decision. If he carries over the momentum he gained to end last year, perhaps you do decide to make him your staple at first base even though he'll be 30 in August. But at the same time, if he plays well enough, his trade value will never be higher.

If he plays more like he did at the start of last season, you probably don't want to commit to him for the long haul. But then he'll also be hard to flip at the deadline. After all, what contender is going to want to acquire an aging, struggling first baseman?

The Nationals' standing at the deadline will be a factor, too. If they somehow find themselves contending in late July, you can bet Rizzo will either stand pat or try to acquire some pieces for a playoff push. If they are near the bottom of the barrel, we'll probably see a similar sell-off like we saw last July, with expiring contracts likely to be the first to go, regardless of production.

Remember: Rizzo was able to get Thomas for Jon Lester.

Now on to Zimmerman. Of course, Nats fans would love for Mr. National to return for another season, and the team would welcome him back if that's what he decides to do.

Would that be slightly awkward if it is after that send-off in October? Maybe. But we can all get past that for at least one more year of No. 11.

His fork in the road is essentially his decision, and the Nationals will have to react to that. If he comes back, they have their backup first baseman for the season who can also man the position should Bell miss time or get traded. Zimmerman proved last year that he can succeed in that part-time role.

In 110 games, mostly coming off the bench, he hit .243 with 16 doubles, 14 homers, 46 RBIs and a .756 OPS. He slugged against left-handers and played his traditional excellent defense while also being the only Nats player to stay on the active roster all season long. And he only earned $1.35 million (with incentives) on a one-year deal while doing so.

As far as he and the Nats are concerned, depending on the team's timeline back to contention, they could do similar deals as long as they want until Zimmerman finally decides to hang them up.

If that turns out to be this year, then the Nats will need to look for a replacement to back up Bell.

The in-house candidates are limited. Jake Noll is the only realistic possibility to come up from Triple-A Rochester. But he's only made 15 big league appearances, six at first base, and played mostly second and third over his last two minor league seasons. And of the Nats' top 30 prospects, Branden Boissiere is the only one listed as a first baseman, with the former third-round draft pick out of Arizona playing just 25 games with low Single-A Fredericksburg last year.

That would then turn our attention to free agents. The Nationals wouldn't be in line to land one of the big-name first baseman, like Freddie Freeman, Anthony Rizzo or Brad Miller. So they would have to look further down the list at guys like Colin Moran, Daniel Vogelbach or Danny Santana, all of whom posted lower WARs than Zimmerman's 0.4 last year.

There is the possible return of Mike Ford, whom the Nationals non-tendered in November but could still bring back on a minor league deal. Ford played 29 games with Rochester after being traded from the Yankees to the Rays in June and then selected off waivers by the Nats in August.

The good news in this route would be the Nationals wouldn't have to worry about signing either a right-handed or left-handed hitter to platoon with Bell, since he can hit from both sides of the plate.

That's the curious cast at first base. Is it the most pressing or interesting position when the Nationals start camp? No.

But it does pose some serious questions about the Nationals' future as the year moves along.

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