MLB: New York Mets at Washington Nationals

There was a time when Ryan Zimmerman was one of the best, up-and-coming third basemen in baseball. He hit the ground running his rookie year, posting above-average offensive numbers in his age-21 season. He improved offensively every year, though injury robbed him of some time in 2008. He responded with back-to-back superstar level seasons, asserting himself as one of the game’s premier third baseman.

His early production at the hot corner placed him among the best in baseball history across the first five years of his career.

Third Baseman by WAR (through age-25 season)

Rk Player WAR/pos Age PA HR BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Eddie Mathews 38.9 20-25 3807 222 .281 .388 .556 .943
2 Dick Allen 28.0 21-25 2580 112 .311 .387 .558 .945
3 George Brett 27.5 20-25 3114 51 .305 .351 .455 .807
4 Evan Longoria 27.4 22-25 2414 113 .274 .360 .515 .874
5 Ron Santo 27.0 20-25 3793 137 .278 .351 .471 .822
6 David Wright 26.1 21-25 3048 130 .309 .389 .533 .921
7 Ryan Zimmerman 24.4 20-25 3229 116 .288 .355 .484 .839
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/9/2014.

Unfortunately for Zimmerman, he toiled away for the perennially terrible Washington Nationals, the worst team in baseball in both 2008 and 2009. But Zimmerman was an island of greatness amid the fetid mess that eventually netted the Nats Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg. He provided one rare highlight in those dark days, hitting a walkoff home run to end the first game in Nationals Park history.

Then the Nationals got good! They won the National League East division in 2012, their first playoff berth since moving to the nation’s capital. It would be Zim’s coming out party on a big stage!

Except shoulder injuries already started taking their toll on Zimmerman. After his left, non-throwing, shoulder cut him down in 2008, it was his throwing shoulder that dogged him in 2012. What has now been dubbed an “degenerative condition” in his throwing shoulder, the eventual migration of Zimmerman across the diamond is well under way.

The Nationals knew this day was coming. It was evident in the way they approached their contract negotiations with Adam LaRoche. LaRoche wanted three years but the Nats did not want to move off their two year guarantee. The two sides eventually settled on a two-year deal plus a mutual option for a third. They don’t need anybody blocking Zimmerman’s flight to first, which has already begun in earnest.

Last year we highlighted the throwing woes of Zimmerman, demonstrating how his balky mechanics caused him big troubles. Less than one year later, it’s not a problem the Nats can no longer avoid.

Anthony Rendon‘s evident comfort at third base is only making the squeeze on Zimmerman that much tighter, as the Nats need not worry about finding a viable replacement. Rendon got the start on Tuesday and showed off the immediate benefits of arm strength at third.

Over the last two seasons, Zimmerman has made 29 throwing errors. TWENTY-NINE, tied with Pedro Alvarez for worst in baseball. That is the worst kind of company for a defensive third baseman.

Fortunately, the shoulder troubles haven’t translated to struggles at the plate, which makes the idea of moving Zimmerman to first base go down easily. Can they wait until the end of the season, risking further injury and/or indignity by keeping a broken-down player at the position longer than his body can support?

They don’t have much in the way of choice. Trading LaRoche is not a palatable option, as the veteran is a beloved member of the team and a very good hitter in his own right. But this problem is one that all the gimmicky throwing motions can no longer hide. Ryan Zimmerman problems aren’t mental like poor Chuck Knoblauch, his body no longer allows him to make the required motion.

Since his shoulder injury in 2012, Ryan Zimmerman posted a 123 wRC+. Among first basemen, that would rank him just outside of the top ten, equal to Albert Pujols and just ahead of Nick Swisher. Can he maintain that level of offensive production for the next five years? He is still just 29 and Baseball Prospectus projects him to post a .263/.329/.416 line in the final year of his guaranteed deal. For a first baseman? That’s terrible. But it’s also five years from now.

Managing to find the correct amount of playing time for Zimmerman, LaRoche, and Rendon is the biggest challenge for Matt Williams and his Nats staff. It would be a shame to cast aside a viable contributor like LaRoche in exchange for a cheaper but potentially less productive offensive player in Rendon (Steamer projects LaRoche for a .354 wOBA with 20 HR for the rest of the year, compared to .341 wOBA with 12 homers for Rendon.)

But the Nationals hand, err shoulder, is forced. Something has to give, even if it means platooning a player without major platoon splits in LaRoche. Superstar Ryan Zimmerman is gone and only a decent to average first baseman remains. That his long and lucrative contract extension just kicked is this year is immaterial – the 2014 Nationals are a better team with viable 3B Ryan Zimmerman in their mix. How they manage the situation forced on them will go a long way in dictating how far they progress in this crucial season in their competitive window.