Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 1, 2015

Seemingly The Same, But Utterly Different

This is a tale of two ballplayers with a few things in common. Both arrived early at spring training camps on the opposite coasts of Florida, where each is learning a new position. After years spent protecting one corner of the diamond, both have been asked to move to the other side of the infield. For entirely different reasons there are questions about how much each will be able to contribute to his team in the coming season; with the eventual answer provided by each player having the potential to significantly impact his club’s fortunes. Of course as the tale will show, there are also vast differences between the Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman and the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez; a fact that has only been reinforced by the approach each has taken to his new assignment.

Zimmerman has teammates in Washington that are better known to fans beyond the beltway. As the number one overall picks in the 2009 and 2010 drafts, pitcher Stephen Strasburg and outfielder Bryce Harper gained instant fame. With his $210 million dollar free agent contract this past offseason, pitcher Max Scherzer made headlines far and wide. But in many ways Zimmerman remains the face of the franchise at least locally, for he has been with the club far longer than those others, and committed to staying with the Nats for most if not all of his career at a time when their recent success was still just a future hope.

Taken as the fourth overall pick in the 2005 draft, Zimmerman made his major league debut that September after rosters expanded. His first at bat produced a double to the gap in right center at RFK Stadium. Zimmerman became the starting third baseman the following year. He emerged as the star of the team that bided its time at cavernous old RFK while negotiations for a new stadium dragged on. He was the lone bright spot on the club that suffered through back-to-back 100-plus loss seasons in its first two years at lovely Nationals Park. He won a Gold Glove Award in 2009, and Silver Slugger trophies both that year and the next.

But after signing a long-term extension prior to the 2012 campaign, Zimmerman’s performance at third base began to decline. He suffered from shoulder inflammation that directly impacted his ability to fire the ball across the field. The short-term answers were cortisone shots in 2012, then arthroscopic surgery in 2013. Then last year, in addition to continuing shoulder issues, Zimmerman lost time to a torn hamstring muscle and a fractured thumb. While he played in only 61 games it was clear that he was no longer effective at the hot corner. The Nationals allowed first baseman Adam LaRoche to depart in free agency this past offseason, believing that having Zimmerman learn the position was the best way to keep him in the lineup, take pressure off his surgically repaired shoulder, and maximize return on their investment, which has five years plus a club option sixth still to run.

With the retirements of Mariano Rivera in 2013 and Derek Jeter last fall, it is certain that there is no Yankee who is better known outside of Gotham than Alex Rodriguez. Yet whatever the broader public may perceive locally he has never been the face of the franchise. That honor of course went to the Captain, and beyond him to his Core Four teammates of Mo, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada. Even with the Core Four all headed for Monument Park, Yankee fans are certain to reserve their loudest cheers on Opening Day for someone other than Rodriguez.

That die was cast when he opted out of his already rich contract in 2007 to test free agency. Rodriguez rejoined the Yankees when Hank Steinbrenner, bidding against himself, offered a deal that redefined absurd. His status with some of the New York faithful was further blemished when he admitted in 2009 to having used PEDs earlier in his career. Remaining loyalties were stretched to the breaking point when Rodriguez was suspended in August 2013 for the balance of that season and all of last year as a repeat PEDs offender, the poster boy of the Biogenesis debacle. After undergoing hip surgery the previous offseason, Rodriguez didn’t appear in a Yankee uniform in 2013 until the day the suspension was announced, playing the final two months while he appealed his ban.

Rodriguez hit all of .244 in 44 games in 2013, with just 7 home runs. After a year away from the game, a pair of hip surgeries, and a body that will turn 40 in July, it’s anybody’s guess how much he can contribute. The Yankees have moved on, inking Chase Headley to a four-year contract during the offseason after acquiring him from the Padres at the trade deadline last year. During the negotiations Headley was assured he would be the team’s starting third baseman. Yankee management would doubtless be overjoyed if Rodriguez would just go away, but he has $61 million good reasons to hang around for the three years remaining on his contract. So he is being penciled in by manager Joe Girardi as the likely DH, while also being asked to learn to play first base in order to spell Mark Teixeira from time to time.

Steps from the Atlantic Ocean beaches in Viera, Ryan Zimmerman is working hard at learning the nuances of his new position. After arriving at camp day before position players were supposed to report, he’s been working with coaches and manager Matt Williams, who made the same third to first transition during his playing days. He’s also spent time practicing with Yunel Escobar, who is making his own shift from shortstop to second base. Speaking about making a successful move to first, Zimmerman told the Washington Post ‘I think it’s a big part of us being a good team so that’s the whole goal. I’m just going to be the best that I can be over there and help the guys out in the infield.”

Meanwhile across the state in Tampa, Alex Rodriguez appears less interested in meeting his new challenge. He also arrived at camp early, but didn’t bother to tell the Yankees he was coming. Responding to a reporter’s question he expressed doubt about his ability to play first base. Then Friday he took the field without a first baseman’s glove, later saying he couldn’t find it. The New York Times report on the practice session noted that “What was most striking about Rodriguez’s first workout at first base was how disengaged he appeared to be. While other Yankees did the drills at close to game speed…Rodriguez went about his work with a degree of nonchalance.”

The familiar rituals of spring must still unfold before the longest season even begins. Myriad factors beyond these two men will influence how both the Nationals and Yankees ultimately fare. Pundits who are making Washington a popular World Series pick are doing so largely because of the team’s imposing starting rotation. The same seers who predict a third straight dark October in the Bronx are doing so for team shortcomings unrelated to Alex Rodriguez. Yet there is no escaping the fact that for whatever their situations have in common, Ryan Zimmerman’s commitment to his team and Alex Rodriguez’s mirror opposite speak volumes about both players, and perhaps about the prospects for both teams.

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