VIERA, Fla. — The new piece of equipment in Ryan Zimmerman’s locker is a first baseman’s mitt. He doesn’t mind using it a little, as long as it’s not a lot.
“I don’t know if I’m ready for 65-70 games over there, but you never know,” Zimmerman said Tuesday. “I think with the way I finished, the way my arm feels now, I think I can help this team win more games at third base.
“But if there’s an opportunity for me to play 10-15 games at first base and it helps us win some of those games, then I’m down to help out any way I can.”
Zimmerman had been pegged as a third baseman first, last and always as the longtime face of the Washington Nationals — until he started throwing the ball away. With his shoulder not fully recovered from offseason surgery, Zimmerman’s throws to first became so wayward last year that he started playing shallower. He had 16 throwing errors, and manager Davey Johnson openly suggested that a move across the diamond could be forthcoming if there was no improvement.
Now there is a new manager, Matt Williams, who plans to have Zimmerman take grounders at first during spring training. Williams, though, isn’t portraying the move as a phased-in career switch because of arm trouble, but rather as a strategic move that would allow the manager to sit regular first baseman Adam LaRoche against some left-handed pitchers. Williams said Zimmerman will be at third “99 percent of the time.”
“You use the scenario, some tough left-hander — Clayton Kershaw as an example,” Williams said. “You want to try to stack your lineup if you can against Clayton. … It’s on a temporary basis if we want to gain an advantage with our lineup. Nothing further than that.”
Fine, except that Zimmerman hasn’t played first at any level beyond perhaps Little League. He’s unaccustomed to the different way — the opposite way, in fact — that the ball comes off the bat. He hasn’t had to catch a pitcher’s pickoff move, or turn the tricky 3-6-3 double play. He only recently obtained the first baseman’s mitt, and he’s played catch with it just a couple of times.
“For some reason, everyone just thinks that’s where they put the adult softball guy and he can play big league first base, which is not the case,” Zimmerman said. “I’ll work at it. (Williams) made it very clear, and I respect him for that, that he doesn’t want me to feel uncomfortable or put me in any situation to fail.”
In that respect, he has the full empathy of his manager, who was mostly a third baseman and shortstop but played a handful of games at first with the San Francisco Giants in 1996.
“The game, when you move to that side, looks backwards to you,” Williams said.
Of course, the plan could go haywire if Zimmerman can’t make the routine throw to first. He’s encouraged that he will. His shoulder grew stronger as last season progressed, and he’s had a regular, rehab-free offseason, which means a normal workout regimen. He’s confident enough in his arm that he plans to back up a bit and play third at his usual depth, the way he did when he won a Gold Glove in 2009.
“I think I need to have a year like I used to have,” Zimmerman said. “Play third base like I know I’m capable of and like people expect me to play. Then once I go a year doing it and being consistent, that’s when you can really say the shoulder’s fine.”
NOTES: Williams said every player had reported by Tuesday’s deadline. The position players will have physicals Wednesday and their first formal workout Thursday. … Williams’ daily slogan for Tuesday again focused on the pitchers: “Expect the ball to be hit; demand that it be caught.” The manager explained: “The infielders and outfielders expect them to throw strikes and work ahead. And the pitching staff expects them to catch it when it’s hit to them. So that’s all it means.”
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