Zimmerman returns to Nats. What's his role?

Franchise icon: 'I still think I can play the game at a high level'

January 23rd, 2021

Excitement.

That’s how first baseman and franchise cornerstone described feeling after inking a one-year pact to return to the Nationals for a 16th season. The team officially announced the deal on Saturday.

“I just wanted to come back and play and have the opportunity to help this team win,” Zimmerman said on Zoom. “Playing anywhere else, I think, would really be weird.”

Zimmerman, 36, has played every game of his 15-year Major League career with Washington, after the franchise selected him in the first round (fourth overall) of the 2005 Draft. The right-handed slugger, who opted not to play in 2020, sports a .279 average with 270 homers and 1,015 RBIs over 1,689 games.

“I didn’t know if they were going to offer me a Major League deal, or if they were going to want me to come down on a Minor League deal,” Zimmerman said. “I’m 36 years old and I haven’t played baseball in a year. I think that shows, obviously, the respect that Riz [general manager Mike Rizzo] and the team have for me. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that.”

When Zimmerman decided to forgo playing last season, he was more than 95 percent sure he would return. As he watched the Nationals from a distance, his thoughts on taking the field in 2021 “shot up pretty close to 100 percent very quickly.” He missed the daily grind, clubhouse camaraderie and competition, and he got to work this fall.

“Even [my wife] Heather and the girls kind of thought it was weird not having baseball in our life,” he said. “It’s all we’ve really known together as a family. I guess I would say I definitely always thought I was going to come back, and I’ve been working out since probably September, October. If I could just have 11 months off between every year, I’d be great every time I’m coming in for a new year.”

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The Nationals were in the market for a backup first baseman after acquiring Josh Bell from the Pirates on Christmas Eve as their starter. With Bell being a switch-hitter with better numbers from the left-hand side, the trade accentuated the need for a right-handed backup. Zimmerman has transitioned to that role, appearing in 85 games in 2018 and 52 in '19. He doesn’t think his role in '21 will be much different from the original plan for last season.

“I’m almost looking forward to not knowing whether I’m going to play each week,” Zimmerman said. “But you’ll be able to map out the weekly schedule, see who we’re playing, see who the projected starters are for the other teams. I’m kind of looking forward to getting into late-game situational thinking along with [manager] Davey [Martinez], and thinking of, ‘If this guy gets on,’ or, ‘If they bring this guy in from the bullpen, maybe I can pinch-hit here.'

"So there’s things that I’ve never really thought about or gotten into in the game of baseball, because I’ve always been trying to play every day. … I’m kind of excited about that and learning some new things about the game that I don’t know.”

While the Nationals have added new players to their team for 2021, there still is a solid core from the '19 championship team. Zimmerman describes the team as a “close-knit group,” which had a role in his decision to return.

“I enjoy playing with this group of guys,” Zimmerman said. “If it was a different situation and we had a bunch of roster turnover and we had a bunch of unknowns or uncertainties, it might have made the decision a little bit harder. But they do such a good job of keeping such a good group of guys together. It’s something you want to be a part of.”

The impact of Zimmerman’s presence on the Nats' roster is undeniable. He has risen to the top of Washington’s leaderboards over the past 15 seasons, ranking first in club history in games played, home runs, RBIs, doubles, runs scored, walks and total bases. He also, appropriately enough, hit the franchise's first World Series home run during its 2019 title run.

And he’d like to continue adding to those feats.

“Me coming back this year was in no means for like a victory lap sort of thing,” Zimmerman said. “I think you guys know me better than that. I appreciate this fan base and this city -- much has been made about that. We've grown up together, all that kind of stuff. But this is about coming back because I still think I can play the game at a high level, and I still think I can help the team win.

“If I can kind of settle into this role and do well this year, by no means does this have to be my last year. At least that's the way I'm looking at it.”