Ryan Zimmerman's throwing issues have been well documented over the past year or so, and the longtime National underwent an MRI this weekend that revealed no structural damage to his throwing shoulder (via the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore). However, manager Matt Williams said in a radio interview with CBS Sports last night that Zimmerman is dealing with an arthritic shoulder — hardly good news for the Nationals as Zimmerman plays out the first year of a six-year, $100MM extension.
Mark Zuckerman of CSN Washington looks at what the situation means for Zimmerman's future and what it means for the future of Adam LaRoche, who is off to a hot start in the second year of a two-year, $24MM contract. LaRoche's deal contains a mutual option for a third year, but as Zuckerman points out, Zimmerman's throwing issues essentially preclude the Nationals from being able to exercise that option, regardless of LaRoche's season. Zimmerman already has two throwing errors on the season against six assists throwing the ball to first base, according to Baseball-Reference.com (not exactly an acceptable ratio).
Some might be quick to say that the solution is a trade of LaRoche to open up first base for Zimmerman, but Zuckerman writes that such a move isn't simple for a number of reasons. LaRoche is 34 years old and coming off perhaps the worst full season of his career, and teams know that the Nationals would be highly motivated to trade him, thereby giving GM Mike Rizzo less leverage. On top of that, Zimmerman has little experience at first base, making a smooth transition anything but a safe assumption.
In addition to Zuckerman's rationale (which is sound), LaRoche's $12MM salary and $2MM option buyout would be detrimental in trade talks, and there's also the simple fact that strengthening their defense by trading him could also weaken the lineup and deplete the team's infield depth. In that scenario, Anthony Rendon would likely switch to his natural position of third base, with Danny Espinosa perhaps getting a second chance to prove himself as an everyday second baseman in the Major Leagues. That's an experiment that could pan out, and were the Nationals still a cellar-dwelling entity, it wouldnt be as much of an issue. However, this team is built to contend right now, and such a drastic shuffle of their infield doesn't seem practical with the season underway.
Zuckerman writes that for the remainder of the season, it's difficult to dream up a scenario where Zimmerman doesn't spend the majority of his time at third base. He can be shielded from the field by DHing in American League parks and occasionally spelling LaRoche at first base (I would think that LaRoche could benefit from time away from tough left-handed pitchers). However, the team has less long-term flexibility to build its lineup and could be without a place to put top prospect Matt Skole (Baseball America has pegged his range at third base as inadequate) if Zimmerman is limited to first base duties for the remainder of his contract.