On June 3, in the opening game of a series against the Philadelphia Phillies, Ryan Zimmerman returned to the Washington Nationals' lineup after spending seven weeks on the disabled list with a fractured thumb. That day, and for the seven games since, Zimmerman was announced as the Nationals' starting left fielder. Prior to that, the only time he had taken the field at a position that was not third base was when he played shortstop in his third career start as a 20-year-old September call-up back in 2005.
While the move to left field is not expected to be permanent, we are likely to see Zimmerman out there regularly until Bryce Harper returns from his own stint on the disabled list. When a star player who is that entrenched at a position is tasked to man a different station that requires a very different skill set, it's natural to wonder if the player can handle the change.
The reason it seems so odd to think about Zimmerman playing left field is that just a few years ago he was one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball. In 2009, he was honored for his outstanding play at the hot corner with both the Fielding Bible Award and the National League Gold Glove Award. That was the high point of a very impressive four-year run from 2007 to 2010 during which Zimmerman accumulated 60 defensive runs saved (DRS) as calculated by Baseball Info Solutions, second only to Adrian Beltre among third baseman during that span.
However, in the time since, injuries have taken their toll. In 2011, Zimmerman had the worst defensive season of his career, costing the Nationals an estimated five runs while dealing with an abdominal strain. Starting in 2012, he has been suffering from shoulder issues that have affected his ability to accurately throw the ball to first base. As a result, he recorded slightly below average seasons of minus-1 DRS each in 2012 and 2013, and he has been worth another minus-1 DRS so far in 2014.
Given his defensive decline at third base, it is not surprising that the Nationals have considered alternatives for Zimmerman. And a move to left field actually bodes well for him.