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Position by position: Third base

This should be brief, and I'll let you discuss it till Friday morning, when I head to Atlanta and we return from an off day to bring some baseball. But we've done the position-by-position looks at catcher (ad nauseum, you might say), first base (and there was this from Nick Johnson in this morning's notebook, which I thought would generate more discussion than it has), middle infield (before Felipe Lopez's media moratorium, which I have yet to address in the $.35 edition but will when Lopez is a key factor in a game), and closer.

So that leaves us at third base, and though I'll give you all the same stats and contract breakdown, we'll end up approaching this one from a bit of a different angle.

Ryan Zimmerman
Age: 22 (turns 23 on Sept. 28)
Contract: $400,000 for 2007, in negotiations for a long-term deal, but even if one isn't struck will first be eligible for arbitration after 2008, first eligible for free agency after 2011
2007: 140 G/564 AB, .270 average/.326 on-base percentage/.468 slugging percentage, 36 doubles, 22 HR, 82 RBI, 97 strikeouts, 47 walks
Career: 317 G/1,236 AB, .284/.343/.474, 93 doubles, 42 HR, 198 RBI, 229 K, 110 BB

Fielding: Zimmerman has 19 errors and a .956 fielding percentage in 2007 as opposed to 15 errors and a .965 fielding percentage all of last year. He does, however, already have more total chances this year than in 2006 (430 to 427), and he leads all major league third basemen by being involved in 33 double plays - an indication not only that Ronnie Belliard, primarily, has done a fine job in the pivot, but also that Zimmerman is bold enough to go to second with a strong, sure throw.

This is the one position about which the Nationals feel they don't have to worry headed forward. Zimmerman's development might seem somewhat stunted this year - lower batting average (.270 to .287 last year), on pace for 95 RBI as opposed to 110 a year ago, on pace for 42 doubles as opposed to 47 a year ago (though he already has five triples as opposed to three last year), with lower OBP (.326 to .351) and slightly slugging percentage (.468 to .471).

I have told Zimmerman, as far back as spring training, that more than anything this year, I figured his strikeouts would go down and his walks (and therefore his OBP) would go up. That hasn't been the case, and that's largely due to a first half in which he simply couldn't lay off bad breaking stuff. (Again, we probably have discussed this ad nauseum, but those sliders that are maybe three or four inches off the plate have bedeviled him. When he lays off, he gets in a hitter's count. When he swings, he either misses or gets himself out.)

But look at his numbers since the all-star break: .298/.365/.527., with 37 of his 82 RBI in 36 fewer games than he played before the break. I think that's what he'd like to put up over the course of a year.

"I wish I would've done that in the first half," he told me last week. "But it's something to learn from," he says that a lot, "and hopefully next year I'll have a better first half and put together a full year."

The new park, more hitter-friendly in the gaps, will help, to be sure, but that might just take some of those doubles and turn them into homers.

I think, too, some consideration must be given to the conditions under which Zimmerman is developing. He has started in all 140 of the Nationals' games - once as a designated hitter, 139 times as the third baseman. Only two players in all of baseball - Atlanta outfielder Jeff Francoeur and San Diego first baseman Adrian Gonzalez - have played more than Zimmerman's 1,232 innings.

More over, Zimmerman has never hit anywhere but third this year. He has no Soriano in front of him - and say what you want about how many times Soriano cleared himself from the bases with his 46 homers, there was a reason why Zimmerman led all of baseball with 198 at-bats with runners in scoring position in 2006. To drive in those 110 runs last year - an impressive total - he hit .323 with runners in scoring position.

This season, Zimmerman is tied for 75th in at-bats with runners in scoring position (123). He's on pace for 142 such at-bats - or more than 50 fewer than a year ago. Though his average is down to .285 in those situations, it's a wonder he's on pace for within 15 RBI of last year considering he's going to have so many fewer chances (though a few extra homers will help).

The point is that the Zimmerman's environment has to have some sort of influence on his development. Take a player with whom he's likely to be compared for much of his career - David Wright of the Mets. When Wright was 22, he was in his first full season in the majors. He played in 160 games and hit .306, a very impressive number. But the Mets were able to protect him in the lineup more. He hit fifth 76 times and either sixth or seventh 74 times. Only 10 times did he appear in the second, third or fourth spots in the order. That had to have an impact on Wright's stellar numbers - including a .388 OBP and .523 slugging percentage, numbers Zimmerman won't approach this year.

"I've had to get used to being the guy they don't want to pitch to, the guy they don't want to beat them," Zimmerman said last week.

That, then, is the theme of this year for him - learning. We haven't even begun to discuss his defense - and despite the errors, I'm a firm believer that once he wins one Gold Glove, he'll win the next 10 - but my question to you is this:

What do you see Zimmerman as long-term? Is he a .280/25 HR/90 RBI guy? Is he a .280 guy but with more power, perhaps 35 and 110? Is he the complete package, a .300 hitter with 40 homers and 120 RBI? Or is he being over-rated, and he'll end up as a .270/20/80 guy?

I'll get you something in the morning before I go to Atlanta - or at least when I land. But until then, enjoy the night off - and this discussion.


By Barry Svrluga  |  September 6, 2007; 6:36 PM ET
 
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