Zimmerman ready to prove himself at first base

VIERA, Fla. - It’s a new year and a new position for Ryan Zimmerman.

Aside from injuries, Zimmerman has been the Nationals third baseman ever since he was the first player drafted by the organization after moving to Washington in 2005. But those injuries, combined with the departure of Adam LaRoche and the emergence of Anthony Rendon, have forced the Nationals to move Zimmerman across the diamond to first base, a position he has little experience playing, having seen action in only 18 innings in the majors there, all last season.

“I think it’s weirder for you guys than it is for me,” Zimmerman said while standing in front of his locker this morning. “All good things come to an end. I think not too many people get to play as long as I have and be as lucky as I have been so far. Still have a lot of baseball left. It’s kind of just a new chapter, I guess, and go from there. Anthony is an unbelievable young player, and I’m looking forward to watching him grow and mature over there. I think he has a chance to be really, really good.

Nationals manager Matt Williams was on the field this morning working with Zimmerman for the second straight day at Space Coast Stadium. Williams, who also played primarily as a third baseman for most of his 17 seasons in the majors, does have some experience at first base, though not much more, having seen action in 18 games at the position.

“Infield is infield is infield,” the manager said. “It’s the opposite side of the diamond, but he’ll adapt to that really quickly. For me, the thing that’s going to be something he has to think about is being the cutoff guy when the ball goes to center field because he’s never done it. When the ball goes to right field, making sure that he’s on all of the tandem relay stuff. But we’ll get a chance to go through that in spring training and help. Get a chance to walk through it, then live through it, then game through it. He’ll be fine.”

zimmerman-infield-spring-training-sidebar.jpgZimmerman doesn’t seem too concerned about the challenges of a new position. It’s more just familiarizing himself with the duties that fall on him in specific game situations.

“A lot of it is just being over there and getting some experience, not so much learning the cutoffs and things like that, but just making that muscle memory and getting used to the responsibilities over there,” he said. “Other than that, it’s a pretty self-explanatory position and just got to get some experience and get some games in this spring.”

Staying healthy has been a major issue for Zimmerman over the last few years. He missed 101 games last season with a torn right hamstring, a fractured thumb and shoulder issues. He’s spent numerous stints on the disabled list throughout his career with hamstring and shoulder complications, as well as abdominal problems.

“The last year and a half, two years have been rough for me,” Zimmerman said. “I think obviously the first seven years, played almost every single day, didn’t have to worry about any aches and pains, was 20 years old and nothing ever hurt. So it’s been a learning experience. Unfortunately for me that meant missing some games over the last two years. No one wants to be hurt, no one wants to be injured. The last thing anyone in here wants to have to do is miss games. But I learned a lot from it, and moving forward, I had to change some things up. I feel great, hopefully this year, play 150 games, that’s the plan.”

Zimmerman doesn’t plan to take any precautions on the basepaths to protect his hamstrings.

“Part of my game is always to try to run out everything, and if I don’t do that, then other guys might not do that,” he said. “If I’m not healthy to do that, then I’m not going to play.”

Zimmerman was asked if he leaned on LaRoche, who won a Gold Glove at first base in 2012, for any advice on how to play the position.

“He doesn’t answer his phone in the offseason,” Zimmerman joked. “Obviously, he’s one of the best. Just watching him, being around him a couple of years. Even back to when Nick Johnson was here - Nick was one of the best, too. Everyone’s different. No one can play every position the same, just like nobody hits the same, and it’s going to be on me to play the position the way I need to play it.”

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo is excited about the prospect of Zimmerman taking on the new position, even saying he could be a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman.

“He’s got great feet and great hands and the athleticism to play different positions in the infield,” Rizzo said. “I saw him as a shortstop who moved to third and now a third baseman that moved to first. I see him taking to first base very smoothly and being a really good first baseman over there.”

There are nine more days of practice for Zimmerman before the Nationals play their first Grapefruit League game. This morning, he made it clear he’s looking forward to the new challenge.

“It’s fun,” Zimmerman said. “In baseball, I think you have to prove every year that you can play. There’s always someone trying to take your spot and push you and that’s the great thing about sports. It’s fun, it’s nice to kind of go back and have to prove yourself. Not that you need motivation, but I think having to prove myself and be a big part of the team and help us win, that’s the obvious goal here. We’ve got a really good team. Everyone’s got to do their part. It’s going to be fun.”

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