Ryan Zimmerman was close to 100 percent confident all along he’d return to play for the Nationals this year after opting out of the 2020 season. But his motives weren’t personal, and they weren’t about ensuring his career didn’t end without playing one more season for the only franchise he’s ever known.
“Me coming back this year was in no means for a victory lap sort of thing. I think you guys know me better than that,” the 36-year-old first baseman said today during a Zoom session to formally announce his 2021 contract signing. “I appreciate this fan base and this city. Much has been made about that. We’ve grown up together, all that kind of stuff. But this is about coming back because I still think I can play the game at a high level, and I still think I can help the team win.”
The Nationals believe the same, viewing the $1 million investment in Zimmerman (plus incentives if he reaches certain statistical mileposts) as a smart baseball move. As a backup to new first baseman Josh Bell who can start some games vs. left-handers, come off the bench to pinch-hit and serve as a late-inning defensive replacement, the longtime “Face of the Franchise” could still play an important role in the club’s success.
Both Zimmerman and the Nationals felt the same way a year ago when they agreed to their last contract (also for one year, but with a $2 million base salary). He was slated to share the first base job with Eric Thames and Howie Kendrick and contribute in a new but not insignificant role for the defending World Series champions.
But the prospect of playing during a shortened pandemic season was too risky for Zimmerman, who had a newborn son at home and a high-risk mother nearby in Virginia Beach. So he made the decision to opt out before summer training commenced, forfeiting his salary and leaving his baseball future somewhat in doubt.
As he watched games on TV from home and spent way more time with his wife, Heather, and their three young kids, Zimmerman all but made up his mind he would attempt to come back in 2021.
“I don’t think it was ever 100 percent, but I don’t think it was under, like, 95 percent,” he said. “Once I was hanging out at home and watching the games and kind of getting into life without baseball, I think that number shot up to pretty close to 100 percent very quickly on my end. And probably Heather’s end, as well. ... Even Heather and the girls kind of thought it was weird not having baseball in our life. It’s all we’ve really known together as a family.”
Zimmerman continued to work out on his own all summer, but he didn’t go through any baseball activities. He has since begun to ramp things up with the intention of reporting for spring training next month ready to participate fully and prepare for the season.
“I feel great, and I’m excited to get down there,” he said.
Having dealt with more than his fair share of injuries, particularly during the second half of his 16-year career, Zimmerman believes all this recent time off will be to his benefit. He admits there could be some rust, but that’s what six weeks of spring training are for. He also believes his planned reduced role will help keep him healthier during the full season.
But that reduced role on the field has reduced his financial reward. After making $18 million the last time he played in 2019, he’s now accepting the kind of minimal salary rarely given to players of his stature.
At the same time, he admits it could’ve been worse.
“I didn’t know if they were going to offer me a major league deal, or if they were going to want me to come down on a (non-guaranteed) minor league deal,” he said. “I’m 36 years old, and I haven’t played baseball in a year. So I think that shows, obviously, the respect that (general manager Mike Rizzo) and the team have for me. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that.”
And though it would be easy to view the 2021 season as one final swan song for one of the most important players in franchise history, Zimmerman isn’t ready to make any such pronouncements yet.
“If I can settle into this role and do well this year, by no means does this have to be my last year,” he said. “At least that’s the way I’m looking at it. I’m not coming back to get a last at-bat in front of fans. I’m fine with how my career would have ended if I didn’t come back.”