Zimmerman may move from third to first, but when?

With first baseman Adam LaRoche’s two-year deal set to expire after the 2014 season - pending the unlikely scenario where he has a monster year and both he and the Nationals agree to exercise a $15 million option for 2015 - there will soon be a new round of chatter about third baseman Ryan Zimmerman switching positions.

It seems like an inevitability that Zimmerman will eventually move across the diamond to first base. He’s locked into a six-year, $100 million deal that begins this season and runs through through 2019 with a $24 million club option for 2020. And while Zimmerman is preparing to learn a new position in spring training at the behest of new manager Matt Williams, there are multiple factors that will determine when - and if - Zimmerman will become a full-time first baseman, remain cemented at third or split time between the infield corners.

The first player ever drafted by the Nationals in 2005’s First-Year Player Draft as the fourth overall selection out of Virginia, Zimmerman will be 35 by the time his long-term deal (minus the option) runs out. He’s already spent time on the disabled list during his career for left shoulder (2008), abdominal (2011) and right shoulder (2012) issues, missed the end of the 2010 season with an injury and spent much of the first part of last season recovering from offseason right shoudler surgery.

By the time the 2013 season ended, Zimmerman was looking like his old self, charging slow rollers, making barehanded pickups and firing runners out with on-target throws to first base. He made 14 errors before the All-Star break and seven after. But guys in their mid-30s lose a step, have slower reaction times and less accurate arms. Since the Nationals have no plans to trade their face of the franchise, it’s only logical that at some point he move to first base and yield the hot corner to someone younger and more athletic. It’s baseball’s version of the cycle of life.

Zimmerman said last season that he felt his arm rounding into shape as the season progressed, the strength returning to his throws and instincts taking over in his fielding/throwing motion. That’s good news, because with LaRoche entrenched at first base for another season, the Nats need Zimmerman more at third than at first. Zimmerman could still spell LaRoche against a tough lefty - the left-handed-hitting LaRoche, a career .244 batter against southpaws, fell to .198 in 2013 - assuming the Nationals can find someone else to take over at third now that Chad Tracey is gone.

Had he not been traded in the Doug Fister deal, that job would have fallen to Steve Lombardozzi. Now the Nats find themselves with a set infield of LaRoche and Zimmerman at the corners with Ian Desmond at shortstop and Anthony Rendon at second base. Rendon could back up Zimmerman at third, but that leaves second base open, so now you understand why general manager Mike Rizzo has been so hesitant to trade Danny Espinosa, who has never played third base as a pro. Tyler Moore has taken grounders at third, but has no real experience there, either. None of the players signed to minor league deals with invites to major league camp are experienced third-sackers, either.

The Nationals are thin on major league-ready candidates who can play third base in the pipeline. Zach Walters, 24, who played two games there in September after being called up to the bigs for the first time, was a .253 hitter with 29 homers and 77 RBIs at Triple-A Syracuse, but played mostly shortstop. The Nats have long been enamored with Carlos Riviero, 25, who played mostly third base at Double-A Harrisburg and Syracuse last year, but he’s out of options, has already been outrighted off the 40-man roster as of last spring and is nothing more than insurance if he remains in the system. Natural third baseman Matt Skole was a rising star after hitting 27 homers and driving in 104 runs in two Single-A stops in 2012, but he underwent Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing elbow in April and hit only .184 in the Arizona Fall League. The Nats are having Skole learn first base to improve his versatility. Drew Ward, a 20-year-old selected in the third round of the 2013 draft, is a minimum of several years away after debuting last season in the Gulf Coast League.

So with few options on the 40-man roster and not much available in the minors, what will the Nats do? Probably trust Zimmerman at third base for another few seasons, let him learn first base and see what the free agent or trade markets hold once LaRoche’s deal expires. As long as he can handle the rigors of the position, there’s no reason to accelerate a move, but he will get some reps at first. There’s always the chance the Nationals swing a deal for a backup, make a waiver claim or sign someone who’s been cut loose by another team. At least with Williams, a former major league third baseman who won four Gold Gloves, at the helm, the Nats have someone ready to teach should a crash course in the hot corner become necessary.

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