VIERA, Fla. — Though he acquired a first baseman’s mitt over the winter and is ready to take some reps on the other side of the diamond this spring, Ryan Zimmerman is confident he can become an elite defensive third baseman again this season after a strong conclusion to 2013.
“I think with the way I finished over there, the way my arm feels now, I think I can help this team win more games at third base,” he said Tuesday. “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.”
In the wake of a frustrating year in which he was charged with 21 errors and posted a career-worst .945 fielding percentage, Zimmerman reported to camp over the weekend feeling better about himself defensively than he has in some time. Some 16 months removed from shoulder surgery, he has regained full strength in his right arm and was able to go through a regular, offseason workout regimen before leaving for Viera.
But with the Nationals looking for a right-handed alternative who could give Adam LaRoche a day off here and there this season, new manager Matt Williams asked Zimmerman this winter how he’d feel about learning the ropes at first base.
The 29-year-old’s reaction: “I told him, ‘Hey, I’ll do whatever he thinks is best to help us win as many games as we can.’”
Zimmerman got himself a first baseman’s mitt and has played catch with it a couple of times, but he has yet to actually stand on that side of the diamond and take grounders or perform any other tasks. The transition will be a slow one, with Zimmerman gradually getting to the point where he’s comfortable enough to play a few innings in a Grapefruit League game.
“He’s going to be playing third base 99 percent of the time,” Williams said. “But we want to make sure that he’s comfortable over there. That happens in early work. That happens in extra work. He’s told me he’s more than willing to do that and excited about doing that.”
Zimmerman had words of caution for anyone who assumes he can simply slide from one position to another at the major-league level.
“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,” he 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. He wants to make sure that I feel comfortable over there and know what I’m doing before he puts me over there.”
Though he’s been open to the notion of filling in at first base when needed, Zimmerman is adamant he has many good years left at third base. He can exude that confidence after a strong finish to and otherwise shaky 2013 in which he committed 16 throwing errors but only four over his final 50 games and zero over his final 21.
With his shoulder feeling stronger, Zimmerman was able to adjust his positioning, taking a few steps back and giving himself more time and more space to make plays. That allows him to take the field this season with more confidence … though he admits he’s not all the way back in that regard yet.
“I’m a lot more confident obviously, but for me, I think I need to have a year like I used to have,” he 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.