Ryan Zimmerman’s retrospective spring training statistics will look pretty threadbare - one game as a designated hitter on March 2, two at-bats and a double off the Mets’ Hansel Robles. In a city where intrigue and conspiracy theories are a part of everyday existence, everyone seems to have their own belief as to why the first baseman became a Grapefruit League ghost.
Some whisper that Zimmerman is hiding an injury or working away from prying eyes on something that’s gone wrong in his swing. The Nationals’ party line - that Zimmerman and new manager Davey Martinez agreed that the veteran would work at his own pace on the back fields of the team’s complex in West Palm Beach to ensure he’d be fit and healthy later in the season - hasn’t satiated the non-believers.
Well, Zimmerman wasn’t in the starting lineup for Tuesday’s exhibition game against the Twins at Nationals Park, Matt Adams manning his usual spot at first. Zimmerman’s activity for the day will be limited to setting up his locker in the clubhouse and watching from the dugout.
Cue another round of far-fetched speculation, but not for long.
“Zim will not play today, but he’s ready to go,” Martinez said. “He’ll play opening day.”
Zimmerman and Martinez both say that having the 33-year-old fit on Thursday at Great American Ball Park was always the goal, while maintaining Zimmerman’s long-range health has been a long-term objective. The back stiffness that Zimmerman dealt with early in camp has long since dissipated.
“I feel great. I feel awesome,” Zimmerman said. “I feel ready to go. Like I told plenty of people down there, I’ve had springs where I’ve hit .400 and springs where I hit .200, and once that first game comes, none of that means anything.”
For the past few weeks, Martinez has fielded almost daily questions about when Zimmerman would play and why he wasn’t in the lineup. Reports of Zimmerman’s progress in minor league games didn’t halt the queries.
If there was one distraction in spring training, this was it.
But Zimmerman approached Martinez early in camp and proffered the idea of having him do most of his work out of sight on the back fields at the FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches instead of accumulating at-bats and innings a few at a time in Grapefruit League games.
Working in minor league games gave Zimmerman the opportunity to take at-bats at his own pace. In that less controlled environment, he could hit every inning if he chose, play an inning and then take one off.
But for the Nats, out of sight didn’t mean out of mind, something Zimmerman really doesn’t grasp.
“There’s nothing else to talk about, so ... If I hit .200, like I did last year, I’d be on the way out, and if I hit .400 it would have been the best spring ever,” Zimmerman said. “May 1, nobody would even be talking about it anymore. In two weeks, we won’t even remember it.”
Martinez is ready to put all the Zimmerman chatter behind him. The new skipper is already focused on Thursday’s opener in Cincinnati. He has no qualms about Zimmerman’s readiness for the assignment.
“He’s ready, he’s ready,” Martinez said. “I saw him running bases the other day, and he’s good. We’re excited to get him on the field, and he’s excited, too.”
And Martinez has zero anxiety about Zimmerman’s spring workload - or lack thereof. The fan base’s angst clearly isn’t Martinez’s.
“You know what? For me, my concern is Zim and how he feels,” Martinez said. “We worked out a plan for him and it worked out really well. He’s healthy, he feels good. He made a comment to me that this is the best spring he’s had and he feels great.”
Whether Zimmerman participated in today’s exhibition was strictly up to the player, Martinez said.
“We asked him if he wanted to get some at-bats today and he said he wants to stick to the game plan,” the manager said. “So that’s what we did.”
Coming off a season in which he slashed .303/.358/.573 and posted the highest OPS (.930), most homers (36) and second-most RBIs (108) as a regular, Zimmerman is eager to pick up where he left off. Like most ballplayers, he’s a little superstitious, especially when it comes to things like health and a singular focus on statistics.
He felt good at the end of last season, at the beginning of spring camp and as the Nats embark on the 2018 campaign. So why play with fate?
Besides, Zimmerman pointed out, spring training performances are overrated and can best be viewed as fool’s gold.
“You want to not get hits down there,” he said. “You want to line out and have good at-bats and hit the ball hard, but not get hits. It’s kind of the superstitious part of baseball guys, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter.
“Like I said, there’s been seasons where I come into it feeling like I’m going to have my best year and don’t have a great year, and some times when you come out of spring hoping something’s going to happen and it does. It all gets down to the grind of the season, knowing what you need to do to be successful. A bunch of us in here have a track record and that’s what we’re going to go on.”