The Washington Nationals have undergone a whiplash-y few years. Coming off years as a playoff-impotent, Bryce Harper-led contender, the Nationals turned in one of the most improbable World Series runs ever in 2019, led by none other than Harper’s replacement in then-20-year-old wunderkind Juan Soto.
Soto was actually the Robin on that title team to Anthony Rendon’s Batman. Rendon went 6-for-8 with a walk, three doubles, and three home runs in the 7th inning or later of elimination games during that postseason – a run that featured a record five come-from-behind wins in elimination games. Rendon’s heroics did not save him from Harper’s fate, however, as the homegrown star third basemen departed the capital to join the Angels as a free agent that very winter.
So it was just as the Nats shook off their persona as a playoff also-ran that they tumbled from contention and turned in back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 2010-11. Rather than build off the success of their title run, manager Dave Martinez and company instead oversaw a thin roster struggling to stay healthy and keep pace, even in a disappointing NL East.
Their futility led to the departure of more franchise icons via the deadline trade of face-of-the-franchise Max Scherzer and MVP-candidate Trea Turner to the Dodgers. For the District viewership, count the loss of World Series closer Daniel Hudson, longtime stopper Sean Doolittle, and fan favorite Michael A. Taylor – not to mention the retirement of Game Seven hero Howie Kendrick – among the losses since 2019.
What’s left in Washington is a team so anonymous to the fanbase that more than 20 percent of the active roster was acquired at this year’s deadline. Soto’s supposed running mate, Victor Robles, played so poorly that he was demoted to Rochester and has yet to return. GM Mike Rizzo hopes that the acquisitions of righty Josiah Gray and catcher Keibert Ruiz (acquired from L.A. in the Scherzer/Turner deal) will jump start the next Nationals’ contender, but there are few sure things besides Soto, who now stands as the lone superstar on a once star-studded franchise.
And yet with all those good-byes ushering in a new era of Nats’ baseball, franchise icon Ryan Zimmerman remains. Their first-ever draft pick, Zimmerman was the third baseman before Rendon arrived, and he remains a part-time first baseman long after his departure. Playing time has been carefully curated for the 37-year-old, so much so that one has to wonder if Zimmerman will play his final game at Nats Park on Sunday.
Zimmerman is not a Hall of Famer, but he’s nonetheless put up one heck of a career in Washington. The North Carolina native went to school in Virginia, and he has appeared in every season in Nats history except for 2020 when he opted out. Zimmerman is the all-time team leader in most offensive categories, and even counting Expos history, Zimmerman is the franchise leader in games played, at bats, plate appearances, hits, runs scored, total bases, doubles, RBIs, and home runs (plus strikeouts and double plays grounded into). Yadier Molina of the Cardinals is the only player in the game who has been with his club longer than Zimmerman has been with the Nationals.
In terms of the numbers, Mr. National put up 40.0 rWAR over his 16 seasons while being 16 percentage points better than average by measure of wRC+. He played 1,797 games, slashed .277/.341/.475 with 1,845 career hits and 284 career home runs. Though he’s almost certainly held in higher regard locally than his accomplishments warrant, a history of injuries has also made him somewhat underrated on the national level.
The two-time All-Star has been productive as a part-time player this year, posting 1.1 rWAR in 267 plate appearances with a .243/.281/.470 triple slash, 14 home runs and 45 RBIs. He’s been particularly productive in his role starting games against southpaws, slashing .297/.324/.565 in those games. Though 2017 was the last time he had more than 500 plate appearances in a season, he’s preserved a role as a part-time player.
Zimmerman has enough bat to stay in this game for another year or two, but it would be somewhat surprising to see him return for yet another go-round in Washington. He’s long been adamant about playing nowhere but DC. If the Nats were heading towards a season of surefire contention in 2022, Zimmerman might be more inclined to keep his cleats on, but Rizzo has a lot of work to do to get the roster ready for another run. As of now, however, Zimmerman has yet to announce his intentions for next season.
If Zimmerman does indeed retire, it will be another blow to a DMV fanbase that has suffered its fair share of heartbreak. One of the most consistent franchises in the game during the 2010s, they’ll enter 2022 with more uncertainty than usual. Rizzo, Martinez, and Soto remain as the through-line tracing back to the organization’s heyday, with Stephen Strasburg looming as the other potential face-of-the-franchise, were he able to conquer his health demons and stay on the bump – but that’s more pipe-dream than expectation at this point.
As the ties to the 2019 World Series title come undone, Nats’ fans can enjoy Zimmerman for at least two more games this weekend. That said, a franchise that long provided stability has to build something new moving forward. Zimmerman’s presence is important not only to the fanbase, but as a symbol of the organization’s loyalty and continuity – which is becoming harder and harder to find. Without Zimmerman, the team will truly belong to Soto, and with three years of team control remaining, the franchise has exactly that long to convince him to take on the legacy left behind by Zimmerman as Mr. National.