Ryan Zimmerman’s health key to Nationals’ 2015 success


Jul 22, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Washington Nationals left fielder

Ryan Zimmerman

(11) reacts after getting injured running out a single in the sixth inning against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

2014 was a year to remember for the Washington Nationals. The team won its second NL East title in three years and finished the season with 96 wins, the most in the National League. The Nationals stormed into the playoffs and many fans and analysts alike expected them to make it to the World Series with ease.

Unfortunately, the Nationals’ season ended against the Giants in the NLDS, and the dream was put on hold for at least another year. But the problem with being a contender is that you have to find a way to make it back to the playoffs the following season. And for that to happen, a lot of things have to go right.

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The Nationals are one of the most well-rounded teams in the league and defending their division title shouldn’t be too difficult. Of course, achieving that goal depends on everyone playing to their ability and, more importantly, everyone staying healthy. And while there are many players that need to stay healthy for the Nationals to succeed in 2015, this is especially true for Ryan Zimmerman.

For years Zimmerman was the catalyst of the Nationals’ offense and one of the best defensive third basemen in the league. Recently, however, injuries have forced the former first-round draft pick to spend extended time on the disabled list, which has made things difficult for the Nationals.

Hamstring and thumb injuries limited Zimmerman to just 60 games in 2014 and his absence was one of the reasons the Nationals’ offense struggled at times during the season. When he did played, however, he showed flashes of what the Nationals can expect from him if he manages to stay healthy for a full season. In those 60 games, Zimmerman hit .280 with 25 extra-base hits, five home runs and 38 RBIs.

Zimmerman’s hamstring injury, which forced him to miss most of the second half of the season, nearly prevented him from playing in the playoffs. And while he was on the NLDS roster, he wasn’t healthy enough to start in any game and his absence left the Nationals’ lineup weaker than it would’ve been had he been able to play.

Now, it should be noted that almost every Nationals hitter flopped in the NLDS, and it would be unfair to blame the team’s offensive woes on Zimmerman not being in the lineup. But given Zimmerman’s history, there’s no doubt the Nationals would’ve had a better chance of winning had he been in the batters box four to five times each game.

If Zimmerman stays healthy in 2015, he has the potential to carry the Nationals’ offense into October. Zimmerman’s best season came in 2009, when he hit .292 with 33 home runs and 106 RBIs while being named to the All Star Game and taking home Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards at third base. At just 30 years old and still in his prime, there’s no reason to believe a healthy Zimmerman can’t replicate those numbers in 2015.

While Zimmerman is a crucial part of the Nationals’ offense, perhaps the most important reason why he needs to stay healthy in 2015 is that he will likely be the team’s everyday first baseman.

When it became known that Zimmerman’s arthritic right shoulder would no longer allow him to play third base, the Nationals accepted the fact that Adam LaRoche would leave via free agency to allow Zimmerman to move to first.

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On paper, allowing LaRoche to walk away was a no-brainer. Zimmerman is a better hitter than LaRoche, and while he won’t provide the Gold Glove-caliber defense that we came to expect from Adam, he should be able to grow into a solid defensive first baseman once he gets accustomed to his new position. Unfortunately, this theory only works if Zimmerman plays every day.

LaRoche was one of the most important hitters in the Nationals’ lineup last year, hitting .259 with 26 home runs and 92 RBIs. Next season, Zimmerman will essentially have to provide the offense that LaRoche will no longer be providing.

If Zimmerman stays healthy, this shouldn’t be a problem. He’s a career .286 hitter and has averaged 25 home runs and 98 RBIs over 10 years. If he were to miss extended time on the disabled list, however, the Nationals simply do not have anyone who can produce the kind of numbers that the Nationals need from their first baseman.

If Zimmerman is unable to play, the Nationals would be forced to rely on Kevin Frandsen and Tyler Moore at first base. While both may be important players off the bench in 2015, neither one of them can come close to contributing at Zimmerman or LaRoche-level on a daily basis.

Zimmerman’s move to first base may very well rejuvenate his career and benefit the Nationals long-term, but it also comes with many responsibilities, the most important of which is to stay healthy.

The Nationals have monumental expectations for 2015 and with a big part of the team’s core scheduled to leave via free agency next winter, it may be the team’s last chance for a while to bring the Commissioner’s Trophy back to D.C. There’s no doubt the Nationals have what it takes to accomplish that goal, but if they’re going to do it, they’ll need a healthy Zimmerman manning first base every day and providing the offense that the Nationals expect from the Face of the Franchise.