Zimmerman and right-hander Joe Ross have opted out of the abbreviated 2020 campaign, uncomfortable with the health risks posed to players and staffers during this unprecedented attempt to play through a global pandemic.
“Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross have decided not to participate in the 2020 season for the personal health and safety of themselves and their loved ones,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said in a statement released by the club. “We are 100 percent supportive of their decision to not play this year. We will miss their presence in the clubhouse and their contributions on the field.”
When Major League Baseball announced plans last week to unilaterally impose a 60-game season, players deemed “high-risk” to contract COVID-19 and potentially suffer serious effects from the disease were given the right to opt out and still receive their full prorated salary and service time for this season. Others, such as Zimmerman and Ross, who choose not to play will be placed on MLB’s Restricted List and forfeit their 2020 salary and service time accrual.
Zimmerman, whose wife just gave birth to the couple’s third child earlier this month and whose mother has multiple sclerosis, publicly admitted late last week he wasn’t sure if he’d play this season. He came to the conclusion in the last few days it wasn’t worth the risk to his family.
“After a great deal of thought and given my family circumstances - three young children, including a newborn, and a mother at high risk - I have decided not to participate in the 2020 season,” Zimmerman wrote in a statement released this afternoon by his agency, CAA. “Everyone knows how much it means to me to be part of a team, and I will miss that camaraderie dearly this year. Of course I would love to pursue back-to-back titles. I cannot speak for anyone else, but given the unusual nature of the season, this is the best decision for me and my family, and I truly appreciate the organization’s understanding and support.”
The 35-year-old first baseman had been one of the Nationals’ highest-paid players for years, with career earnings of $137,492,000. But he negotiated a new deal with the club over the winter which guaranteed him only $2 million this season, plus incentives that won’t be possible to reach in a shortened, 60-game season.
In agreeing to the lesser contract, Zimmerman also agreed to take on a lesser role this season. He expected to share the first base job with new acquisition Eric Thames and returning postseason star Howie Kendrick, while getting more at-bats as a right-handed pinch-hitter.
The addition of the designated hitter to National League games during this unusual season did seem to open the door for more playing time for Zimmerman. The Nationals will miss his bat, but they do appear to be well-positioned to continue without him, with Thames and Kendrick joining new second baseman Starlin Castro and returning veteran infielder Asdrúbal Cabrera as viable alternatives.
Owner of the Expos/Nationals franchise record for home runs (270), RBIs (1,015), hits (1,784), doubles (401) and total bases (3,039), Zimmerman finally got a chance to play in his first World Series last fall. He produced the Nats’ first run of the series with a Game 1 homer off former Astros ace Gerrit Cole and finished the postseason 14-for-55 with two homers, seven RBIs and .735 OPS.
Though he said last winter he wasn’t ready to retire, Zimmerman acknowledged that he would be proceeding on a year-to-year basis. Today’s decision could potentially mark the end of his career, but he insisted he’s not ready to make that call yet.
“To be clear, I am not retiring at this time,” Zimmerman said. “I have not decided on my future in baseball past 2020. But this year, I’ll be staying safe at home and pulling as hard as anyone for the guys to defend our championship.”
Ross, meanwhile, will remain under the Nationals’ control even after sitting out the coming season, one in which he was poised to hold a prominent role.
The 27-year-old right-hander was one of three candidates to open the season as the club’s No. 5 starter and likely had the leg up on Austin Voth and Erick Fedde for the job based on his track record and strong performance during the second half of last season.
Though he struggled mightily in several stints as a reliever, Ross excelled in eight starts down the stretch, going 4-1 with a 2.75 ERA. He wound up making an emergency start in Game 5 of the World Series when Max Scherzer had to be scratched with severe neck spasms.
Ross was set to earn $1.5 million this season, his second of four arbitration-eligible seasons. With four years and 18 days of big league service time, he wasn’t due to become a free agent until after the 2021 season. In choosing to opt out, he may see that key date pushed back to the conclusion of the 2022 season.
The Nationals now have two openings on their just-announced 60-man player pool, the group of players who will be eligible to appear in big league games this season. They could choose to add others from within their organization or they could acquire players from the outside.
The club’s three-week summer training camp tentatively is scheduled to begin Friday at Nationals Park, with players required to report no later than Wednesday so they can be tested for the coronavirus.