In a time when there is still so much uncertainty in the world, there are some things we do know for a fact as it relates to the 2021 baseball season.
Spring training started on time and was completed without any serious hiccups. The Nationals will start their 2021 campaign eventually, even after a player returned a positive COVID-19 test yesterday and opening day against the Mets was postponed. There is no universal designated hitter and the regular 10-team postseason is back, while the runner-on-second-base-to-start-extra-innings rule remains.
In light of these now certainties, I would like to offer one more thing we can look forward to this season: Ryan Zimmerman returning to the diamond and adding to his already monumental career in a Nationals uniform.
Zimmerman - appropriately nicknamed “Mr. National” - is already the Expos/Nationals franchise leader in hits (1,784), home runs (270), doubles (401), RBIs (1,015), total bases (3,039), extra-base hits (693) and times on base (2,445). He even leads the franchise in some not-so-great categories such as strikeouts (1,307) and double plays grounded into (203).
Comes with the territory of a 15-year career on a single team.
But there are some other statistical categories in which Zimmerman is close to being the franchise leader. In most of them, he trails only Hall of Famer and Expos great Tim Raines.
To catch Raines in these categories, Zimmerman just needs to:
* Play 78 more games
* Have 45 more plate appearances
* Get 130 more at-bats
* Score 11 more runs
* Hit 72 more singles
* Walk 193 more times
Some of these are way more manageable in 2021 than others. A lot of whether or not Zimmerman can take the top spot in more franchise numbers depends on his use throughout the season.
Before opting out of the 2020 season due to health concerns for his family amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Zimmerman was already prepared for a reduced role with the Nationals, figuring to split time at first base with Eric Thames and Howie Kendrick.
Now heading into the 2021 season, Zimmerman is still prepared for a reduced role on the roster, this time as Josh Bell’s backup at first base instead of the platoon plan from a year ago.
“I think not playing every day, playing days when your matchups are nice against a pitcher that’s pitching that day, not only does it help me succeed, but it helps me keep my body healthy,” the 36-year-old said back on Jan. 23 on a Zoom call with reporters after signing his one-year, $1 million deal with the Nationals.
“Last year, I was actually looking forward to embracing that role and seeing how, honestly, how much fun it was going to be. Then, obviously, last year happened and I didn’t get to see. So really, the role that I’m accepting and going forward with this year is no real different role of what I was going to have last year. It was just going to be split between a few people. Now they went out and traded for a guy like Josh that has unbelievable talent, so that’ll be fun.”
The Nationals’ plan at first base this year is clear: Bell is the everyday starter and Zimmerman is the backup, who will get this handful of starts throughout the season while also pinch-hitting and being a defensive replacement when the matchups dictate.
With that being the case, how will Zimmerman’s pursuit of more franchise statistical leads be affected?
A lot of it depends on Bell, someone whose durability and availability have been among his biggest strengths as a ballplayer. From 2017-2020, Bell averaged playing in 93.5 percent of each season’s games: 159 in 2017, 148 in 2018, 143 in 2019 and 57 in the 60-game 2020 season.
Barring injury and assuming Bell continues that trend, it doesn’t leave a lot of opportunities for Zimmerman. But the long-time National will still play an important role for manager Davey Martinez’s club.
“I told him he’s gonna get an opportunity to do different things, whether it’s to play defense, to pinch-hit, to start a game against lefties and even give Josh Bell a day off,” Martinez explained on a Zoom press conference back on Feb. 25. “For me, it’s a good problem to have when you have two guys like that that share a position. So we’ll utilize them both.”
It would seem that the 78 games (again assuming Bell plays his expected number of games), 72 singles and 193 walks are probably out of reach this season. But the 45 plate appearances, 130 at-bats and 11 runs are possible, especially if Zimmerman’s hot spring training bat carries over to the regular season.
Even in a limited capacity, Zimmerman can be effective. In 2019, while missing time due to plantar fasciitis and sharing the rest of his playing time with Kendrick, Matt Adams and occasionally Asdrúbal Cabrera, Zimmerman still had 190 plate appearances, 171 at-bats, 20 runs and 44 hits.
Not saying it’s likely, but at the very least it’s something to keep track of with every Zimmerman appearance this season. As J.P. from “Angels in the Outfield” says, “It could happen!”
Meanwhile, Zimmerman himself is not too concerned about his personal accolades and accomplishments at the moment. In fact, he’s more interested in discussing his and the franchise’s impact off the field.
“This past season, when I didn’t play, was the first time I ever really had a chance to think about that stuff a little bit,” Zimmerman said on Sunday before wrapping up spring training. “I don’t really like to do that kind of stuff. It kinda weirds me out a little bit, to be honest with you. I just enjoy playing the game and have been pretty lucky to play, first of all, with one organization for the entire time. And second of all, basically pretty close to the community and the state where I grew up.
“So, to answer your question, I guess the baseball stuff, I think you just play the game until you’re done and then that stuff sorts itself out. But I think I’m more proud of the kind of the community stuff that me and my family have done, that we’ve done with the organization as well. I think if you look around the stadium and you look at just sort of what the Nationals have become in the city of D.C., it’s pretty cool to see how we’ve all grown together. So I think I’ve thought of more about that side of it than the actual records or numbers or team ranks.”
Although he looks forward to reflecting on his legacy with the Nationals in the future, Zimmerman still believes he has more to give this team and its fans.
“There will be a time and a place for that, obviously. I think everyone at some point should sit back and celebrate what they’ve done. But for me, I still think I’m a ways away from that and, honestly, I’m not very good at doing that stuff. So there will be a time and place for that, but not right now.”