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The Nationals have a precarious first base situation

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Ryan Zimmerman had a good 2017, but the Nationals need to prepare for possible regression and injuries.

Divisional Round - Chicago Cubs v Washington Nationals - Game Five Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Nationals are going into 2018 in great shape. Even if the Mets’ starting rotation is able to stay healthy — a very big if — the Nationals should still win the NL East easily. Their biggest competition will be from teams in other divisions for playoff seeding. Considering that Bryce Harper, Gio González, and Daniel Murphy will be free agents next offseason, they really need to make the most out of 2018.

A lot was written about Ryan Zimmerman this past season. He had an absurd start to the year, hitting .420/.458/.886 in April. He fell off precipitously after that, as to be expected, but he did hit .325/.371/.651 in September. For the year, he slashed .303/.358/.573, good for a 138 wRC+. His 36 HR were a career high.

His April success could be attributed to his 40 percent fly ball rate, but it regressed like the rest of his offensive stats. His 33.7 percent fly ball rate for 2017 was actually a bit below his career norm. What really improved was his hard-hit rate. His 40.4 percent clip in that regard was the highest it had been since his 2012 and 2013 seasons, when he hit a combined .278/.345/.471.

It’s possible that Zimmerman finally got healthy in 2017. Although he hit well from 2014 through 2015, he missed half of Washington’s games over that period. In 2016, he was one of the worst players in baseball. His .218/.272/.370 line, which is a 67 wRC+, was worth -1.1 bWAR despite the fact that he played in only 115 games. I can’t imagine that the difference between his 2016 and 2017 performances was caused by anything other than injury.

Zimmerman is very likely to regress in 2018, but he should still be a serviceable player. Steamer projects his 2018 true talent to be .270/.331/.494, which is an above-average offensive line. He is most expected to regress in the power department. His .269 ISO in 2017 was the highest of his career, and it was boosted by a 26.5 percent HR/FB ratio that was nearly twice his career rate! (Oh, and he’s also 33 years old.)

Zimmerman’s projected 2018 line is roughly what the average first baseman hit in 2017. His projected .348 wOBA is about 40 points lower than his 2017 wOBA of .387. Keeping in mind that Δ20 wOBA = Δ1 WAR, the projections expect him to go from ~3 WAR last year to ~1 WAR this year. Even if he plays over 150 games, he is going to have trouble being even an average player in 2018. I’ll be interested to see what PECOTA has to say about his 2018 ceiling. The great thing about PECOTA is that it shows the entire bell curve of a players’s projections, not just the 50 percent regression point.

The bottom line is that Zimmerman is a 33-year-old, injury-prone first baseman who’s projected to regress substantially in 2018. Normally, I would say the front office should look into upgrading, but it’s not that simple. You don’t bench a 13-year veteran who has been with the organization his entire career the year after an excellent offensive season. What you should do, however, is make sure you have the depth to withstand any potential injuries or lack of performance.

The Nats had that player this year in Adam Lind. He is great at making contact, and he hit well in 2017, with a line of .303/.362/.513, though that was mostly against right-handed pitching. Lind can’t hit lefties, with a career line of .217/.263/.329 against them. He has been better than that in recent years, though sample size caveats apply to that. He had a mutual option (lol) for 2018 worth $5 million, but it was declined, and Lind was bought out at $500,000.

It’s tough in today’s game to carry a position player who can only play first base, since teams believe they need an absurd number of relievers in their bullpen. Yes, I know that Lind played some outfield in 2017, but he should only be doing that in emergency situations. From that perspective, one can understand letting Lind go, if it was indeed the Nationals who did so, even though he would have been a solid backup for Zimmerman.

It was amusing to see that the Nats chose to sign Matt Adams. As Jeff Sullivan mentioned in a recent episode of Effectively Wild, Adams and Lind are basically the same player. You can’t even say that it was a money thing, because the move only saved the Nats a half-million dollars. The big difference is that Adams is five years younger than Lind. Because of the age difference, I would not be surprised if PECOTA projects Adams to have the higher upside.

As I mentioned before, I am not a fan of first base-only bench players due to the ridiculously large bullpens that teams carry. That is especially true of NL teams who would be better off with extra pinch-hitters being available. (Speaking of which, Adams will make for a great righty-masher in pinch-hit situations.)

All that being said, this was about as good a move as the Nats had available to them to back up Zimmerman. Hopefully he stays healthy and suffers only minimal regression. If not, it will fall on Adams, whose 2017 season was the first time he was productive for more than 130 games since 2014. It will not affect Washington in the division, but it could affect playoff seeding, which will be critical in this pivotal year for the team.

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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.