Around the Horn: Zim to hold down first base

Around the Horn: Zim to hold down first base

With the start of Spring Training just a few weeks away, anticipation is building for the 2017 season. Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to West Palm Beach, Fla., by Feb. 14, and it's time to break down the Nationals' roster.

This is the second installment of a multi-part Around the Horn series taking a position-by-position look at the projected starters and backups heading into the season, examining first base.

WASHINGTON -- Before it ever really had the chance to become a topic of discussion, the Nationals were sure to announce that Ryan Zimmerman was going to be their starting first baseman.

Washington is usually hesitant to make such declarations for a variety of reasons, but general manager Mike Rizzo is always looking for potential value or a bargain to improve his roster and likes to keep his options open. So it was almost unusual when about a week after the Nats' season ended, Rizzo went out of his way to support Zimmerman during an end-of-season conference call with reporters and proclaim that he would be the starter.

Even if the question of "who" has been answered, first base will be perhaps the most perplexing position on the field for the Nationals next season. What kind of production can they expect with Zimmerman coming off the poorest season of his career? Do the positive signs of last season signal a rebound in 2017 or will his rapid decline continue and force the Nats to eventually make a decision to replace him?

Zimmerman's two-run double

Washington's first basemen produced the lowest on-base percentage (.282), slugging percentage (.357) and the least Weighted Runs Created Plus (68 wRC+) in all of Major League Baseball last season. Those numbers were mostly a result of Zimmerman's struggles, but they also included a down year from backup Clint Robinson and were aided by the offense Daniel Murphy provided in 21 games at first base.

Zimmerman's struggles date back to the last three seasons. He was ravaged by injuries in 2014 and '15 that limited him to a combined 156 games. He stayed on the field more frequently in '16, but his production was limited. Since his last full healthy season in '13, his OPS+ has declined each season. It's a troubling trend for Zimmerman -- who's still only 32 -- but one the Nats believe he can reverse.

"I expect more out of myself than I think anyone expects out of me, so I was disappointed in what I did last year," Zimmerman said at the team's WinterFest in December. "But that's the great thing about baseball -- that was last year and we kind of move on."

Nationals manager Dusty Baker was careful with how to handle Zimmerman last season, easing him into workouts and games during Spring Training to help control the plantar fasciitis that plagued him in 2015. Zimmerman has admitted that he is a slow starter and it takes him some time to get into a rhythm at the plate, so perhaps the late start to the spring did not help him in that regard, even if it helped keep him playing more often. Baker said Zimmerman is far ahead of where he was last season, so perhaps such precautions will not be necessary during Spring Training this year.

Still, Zimmerman will have every chance to prove he can still be a productive player in 2017 in what will be an important year for him and his future with the Nats.

Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.