It was a throwaway line at the end of his opening statement introducing Josh Bell on Saturday afternoon, but a four-word phrase from Mike Rizzo might have carried more weight than he realized at the time.
Rizzo referred to Bell as “our new first baseman.” That’s not something the Nationals general manager has said in some time.
The last time Rizzo acquired a first baseman with the intention of starting him on opening day was 2011. The player’s name was Adam LaRoche, and he would hold the starting role for four seasons. In 2015, Ryan Zimmerman (his shoulder no longer up to the task of playing third base or left field) made the full-time move across the diamond, where he has remained ever since.
(Yes, Eric Thames technically was a “new first baseman” this season, but he was signed under the pretense of sharing the job with Zimmerman, who surely would’ve been in the opening night lineup if he hadn’t opted out of the shortened season.)
Now, though, there’s no reason to believe Bell won’t be the guy at first base on opening day 2021. (Assuming the National League doesn’t bring back the DH, which is probably not safe to assume.)
Which begs the question: What happens to the aforementioned Face of the Franchise?
Zimmerman continues to suggest he wants to return for another season. And he made it clear last winter he wouldn’t play for any other franchise. Is there room for him on the Nationals’ 2021 roster now that they have a guy who started 93 percent of the Pirates’ games over the last four years?
“I’d put it this way,” Rizzo said when asked Saturday. “The acquisition of Josh Bell isn’t going to prohibit us from looking for a good right-handed hitter that either comes off the bench, or plays multiple positions or something like that. We haven’t ruled out a Zim reunion. That skill-set still fits on our roster.”
It wasn’t a 100 percent confirmation of Zimmerman’s return next season, but it certainly didn’t shut the door on the possibility. And a return does make sense, maybe even more sense since Bell was acquired.
Remember, Zimmerman originally intended to be a part-time player in 2020 when he agreed to a $2 million contract with incentives. His stated goal: 250-to-300 plate appearances.
That number might be even lower in 2021.
If healthy, Bell is going to start the vast majority of games at first base. But the switch-hitter is better from the left side than the right side of the plate, so there should be opportunities for Zimmerman to start some games against opposing lefties. He’s got a career .917 OPS against them, and he’s been even better in recent seasons. Since 2017, he has hit .351 with a 1.055 OPS off left-handers.
So, yeah, there’s room for Zimmerman. He can start 30 or so games against lefties. He can come off the bench to face lefties as a pinch-hitter. And he can serve as a late-inning defensive replacement for Bell, who rates as one of the worst first basemen in the majors in the field.
Like last winter, it may take some time for a deal to get done. But there’s ample reason to believe Zimmerman will be back playing for the Nationals in 2021.