Ryan Zimmerman worked out Wednesday with a professional sports team. He put on a uniform, emerged from a locker room and went through drills with fellow elite athletes, then answered questions from reporters after he was done.
All of this took place, of course, at a hockey rink.
Zimmerman, making good on a long-ago promise to Nicklas Backstrom, laced up his skates and donned a full set of equipment as a special guest goalie at Capitals practice Wednesday afternoon. At times looking quite spry and at times looking completely out of place on skates, he tried his best to stop one-timers from Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, drawing a big crowd of interested onlookers at MedStar Capitals Iceplex in Arlington.
“I was more nervous before I went out there than anything I’ve ever been, any sporting event ever,” he told reporters.
Everyone seemed to have fun, but the elephant in the room remained the fact Zimmerman remains unemployed for the first time in his career.
After the Nationals declined his $18 million option for 2020 following the World Series, the 35-year-old first baseman who was the organization’s first draft pick when it arrived in D.C. in 2005 has spent his winter facing an oddly uncertain future.
Or is it actually uncertain? Zimmerman has maintained all along he is willing to return to the Nationals at a reduced salary, reiterating in December that he has no intention of ever playing for another franchise. Nats management has maintained all along it wants to bring Zimmerman back, and the two have kept in touch throughout the offseason.
Only last week Zimmerman and Mike Rizzo met for 90 minutes in the general manager’s office at Nationals Park. Rizzo called it a “great conversation,” talked about how there will be a statue of Zimmerman at the ballpark someday and gave no definitive answer about the status of contract negotiations.
So, what’s going on here? Perhaps the Nats simply have been waiting to take care of all their other offseason business before turning to what should be their easiest transaction. They re-signed Howie Kendrick, Asdrúbal Cabrera and Daniel Hudson. They added Starlin Castro, Eric Thames and Will Harris.
And once Josh Donaldson agreed to terms with the Twins on a four-year contract Tuesday, there doesn’t appear to be much of anything left on Rizzo’s to-do list aside from re-signing Zimmerman.
The Nationals have 38 players on their 40-man roster. There are no other prominent free agents who seem to fit into their current plans. They intend to enter the season with a bunch of experienced and versatile infielders who can move in and out of the lineup and from one position to another on a daily basis, based on matchups and hot hands. And Zimmerman certainly looks like he’d fit right into that rotation.
For those who question whether he’s still a productive big leaguer, consider Zimmerman’s numbers once he returned from his foot injury on Sept. 1. In 35 games (including the postseason) he hit .269 with five homers, 19 RBIs, a .331 on-base percentage and .775 OPS.
No, those aren’t big-time numbers, but they’re perfectly respectable. Throw out the last four games of the World Series (when he very well may have been worn down from the grind of playing every day for the first time in a long time) and he hit .292 with an .830 OPS. That’s better than league-average for a first baseman in 2019.
The Nationals don’t need Zimmerman to be an everyday player in 2020. But they could certainly benefit from his production as a part-timer who shares first base with Thames and Kendrick.
So, again, what’s the holdup at this point?
“We’ve talked,” Zimmerman told reporters at Caps practice Wednesday. “We are continuing to talk. I’ve made my intentions pretty clear, they know where I stand and we know where they stand. We’ve been going back and forth the last couple weeks. I’m sure something will happen, it’s just a matter of time.”
Position players report for spring training in 32 days. At this point, it still seems a safe bet Zimmerman will be there, wearing a ball cap and spikes, not a face mask and skates.