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ZIMMERMAN IS BEST OF CLASS OF 2005


As much as I love the Washington Nationals, I think it’s fair to say that they haven’t done much right since moving to D.C. five seasons ago. Too many of the team’s personnel decisions have backfired, leading to several very long, very ugly, very bad years.

One of Jim Bowden’s first moves was to trade a part-time outfielder and a poor-hitting shortstop to the Angels for the volatile Jose Guillen. At the time, it seemed like a steal.

And it was, but not for the Nationals.

Guillen gave the Nationals one good year (.283-24-76) in his two seasons in Washington. Juan Rivera has been a fixture for the Angels since the trade and batted .287-25-88 this year while playing a flawless right field.

And that light-hitting shortstop, Maicer Izturis, has been the Angels’ starting shortstop since the trade, batting .300-8-65 in 2009 and making just four errors all year.

I could go on, but really, why make your day any worse?

Within that boiling cauldron of mismanaged player transactions, however, is one very good, very lucky move that the Nationals can bank on as the cornerstone of future seasons.

That would be, of course, Ryan Zimmerman.

Oh, wait; you want another lousy personnel decision?

Jim Bowden didn’t like outfielder Endy Chavez very much and traded him to the Phillies for Marlon Byrd, an outfielder they didn’t like very much. He played for two seasons with Washington before leaving via free agency; the Nationals didn't want him anymore.

He signed with the Rangers that winter.

This season, Marlon Byrd batted .283-20-89 while providing the Rangers with solid defense.

Do you think the Nationals might have liked to have an outfield of Josh Willingham, Marlon Byrd and Juan Rivera this year?

All they have to show for the loss of those three players is minor-leaguer Michael Burgess, who the Nationals drafted in the 2007 amateur draft as a compensation pick for the loss of Guillen.

Okay, back to Zimmerman.

When the Nationals picked fourth in the 2005 amateur draft, they chose from a pool of over 2,000 high school and college amateurs. Just three players (the three picks ahead of the Nationals) were unavailable.

How did the Nationals do? In the words of that ancient knight from "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," they "chose wisely."

Let’s take a close look at the top five picks of that draft and see how the Nationals fared compared to the other four teams:

Justin Upton was the top pick of the draft, going to the Arizona Diamondbacks. In his first full season in the major leagues this past year, Upton hit .300-26-86 with 20 steals. However, he is a defense liability in the outfield, which is surprising considering his excellent speed. He committed 12 errors and had just four assists.

Upton is only 21, however, and will get better. While he may not end up being the best player in the draft, the Diamondbacks will never be disappointed with their pick.

The Kansas City Royals, however, are another story entirely.

The Royals had the second pick in the draft and were in need of a third baseman. Kansas City had three top players to choose from: Alex Gordon from the University of Nebraska, Ryan Zimmerman, and Ryan Braun out of the University of Miami.

Gordon was considered the best of the three and the Royals used their second pick to select him.

Four years later, it seems that the Royals made a big mistake.

Gordon’s first professional season came in 2006 when he tore up the AA Texas League, batting .325-29-101 with 22 stolen bases for Wichita. He made it to the majors the next season, but so far has had difficulty hitting major league pitching.

This past season, Gordon batted just .232-6-22 in 49 games and has had problems defensively—he had a .920 fielding percentage in 2009.

His scouting reports still say that Gordon will one day be an All-Star. He may eventually turn it around and reach his potential, but I wouldn’t count on it.

The Seattle Mariners had the third pick in the draft and selected catcher Jeff Clement from the University of Southern California.

After a cup of coffee in 2007, Clement played 66 games with Seattle in 2008, hitting .227-5-23. He spent all of last year in the minors, batting .288-14-68 with Tacoma before being traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates late in the season in a seven-player trade. In 27 games, Clement hit just .224 for AAA Indianapolis.

My guess is that the Mariners realized that Clement didn’t have the future of a No. 3 draft pick and traded him before his value dropped any further. While taking him third overall made sense in 2005, in hindsight, it seems he isn't a top-three talent.

Former general manager Jim Bowden was very high on Zimmerman, and happily took him with the fourth pick in the draft. After a 73-game minor league apprenticeship in the summer of 2005 (.331-12-41), he was promoted to the big club that September and has been the starting third baseman for the Nationals ever since.

Zimmerman had an outstanding rookie season in 2006, hitting .287-20-110 while playing a flawless third base. He was the odds-on favorite to win the Rookie of the Year Award that winter, but finished a few points behind Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez.

I’ve never fully understood why so many players have a “sophomore slump,” but Zimmerman was certainly no exception in 2007, batting .266-24-91 while committing 23 errors at third base. His 2008 wasn’t much better. Injuries sapped his power and malaise seemed to overtake him early in the year; he ended the season hitting .283-14-51

There was some concern among Nationals fans that perhaps, just perhaps, Ryan Zimmerman was going to be a good—not great—player for the Nationals. Now, there is nothing wrong with being a complementary player, but that does become a problem when that player is considered “The Face of the Franchise.”

The 2009 season, then, was to be a watershed year for Ryan Zimmerman. After four years, we would all have a pretty good idea of the type of player he was going to be.

And without a doubt, he showed us.

Zimmerman had that breakout year we’d all been hoping for, hitting .292-33-106 while his defense improved so much that he seems to be a lock for this year’s Gold Glove Award.

I think there is little doubt now that Zimmerman is in fact “The Face” and, at just 24, will only get better.

The last of the top five picks was Ryan Braun, who might be the best pure hitter of the bunch. Since joining the Milwaukee Brewers in 2007, Braun has averaged .308-34-108 with a .937 OPS.

However, because his fielding was so atrocious, the Brewers were forced to move Braun from third base to left field. While his defense has improved in the outfield, it is a situation of going from horrible to acceptable.

There is little doubt that if Ryan Braun played in the American League, he’d be a designated hitter.

There were other quality players selected after Zimmerman. Toronto’s Rickey Romero (13-9, 4.30), Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki (.297-32-92), Cincinnati’s Jay Bruce (.240-43-110) and Jacoby Ellsbury of the Boston Red Sox (.301-8-60) were all first-round picks and have all made an impact at the major league level.

However, each of them has a noticeable flaw in their game. Romero has a problem throwing strikes. Bruce is another Adam Dunn—a low batting average, high strikeout hitter who is a poor defender. Ellsbury lacks power.

Tulowitzki is a fine all-around player, but his statistical splits show that much of his offensive production comes when playing in the high altitude of Coors Field. Take a look at how his numbers change playing at home:

Hits: +11
2B: +3
3B: +3
HR: +2
RBI: +22
BB: +1
K: -26
AVE: +59
OBP: +49
SLG: +88
TB: +30

Zimmerman’s home and away splits are almost even. His batting average this season was 11 points higher on the road. His on-base percentage was two points higher at home and his slugging percentage was six points higher on the road.

In other words, he’s basically the same player at home and on the road, unlike Tulowitzki.

So, what if the Nationals had the first pick, and knew then what we know now about the abilities of these first-round players. Who would they have taken?

Certainly, none of the picks taken after Zimmerman are any better. Gordon and Clement are disappointments, at least thus far in their careers.

That leaves the choice between Zimmerman, Justin Upton and Ryan Braun.

Braun has too many defensive liabilities, and it’s much easier to find a quality outfielder than it is a third baseman. And while Justin Upton may surpass Zimmerman offensively—and he just might—he is a poor defender and isn’t a complete package. (Yes, I know he has tremendous potential, but his tsn.ca scouting report refers to his defense as “raw” and that he “loses focus” while in the field).

While Ryan Zimmerman wasn’t the first choice in the 2005 amateur draft, I think he has developed into the most well-rounded player of the group. Some of the others have a little more power, or a little higher batting average, or field just as well, but none of them do all of those things as well as Ryan Zimmerman does.

And, to top it all off, he enjoys playing for the Nationals and wants to stay here throughout his career.

And he’s a heckuva nice fellow, too.

Jim Bowden didn’t do much right, but in the case of Ryan Zimmerman, we owe him a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.

Comments:
Great article. He is my favorite player. I can't wait to meet Ryan Zimmerman for his first ever public autograph signing in Chantilly, VA on November 1. Info at www.csashows.com
 
"Justin Upton was the top pick of the draft, going to the Arizona Diamondbacks. In his first full season in the major leagues this past year, Upton hit .300-26-86 with 20 steals. However, he is a defense liability in the outfield, which is surprising considering his excellent speed. He committed 12 errors and had just four assists."

Patently false. Upton is a +defender according to pretty much every metric. Upton, Zimmerman, and Braun have all panned out well, Zimmerman and Upton have higher ceilings because they play better defense at more premium positions.
 
Cwolf- how can you call him a plus defender when he made 12 errors in 2009? Add that to what many scouts say, that he "loses focus" at times in the field, and I don't see a quality defender.

His rtot (number of runs above or below average he is in the field is -10.2. Ryan Braun's is -7.3.

Ryan Zimmerman's is -0.5.

I think Upton has the talent to one day be a solid fielder, but he's not there yet (in my opinion).

Thanks for the comment.
 
If the scouting reports say the Upton my be a solid defender with 12error what's to say that Braun wont either he moved from SS to 3rd in the minors, then from 3rd to LF in the majors. He's still learning the nuances of left. While i might be bias for I am a Brewer fan.
Zimmerman is one of the most underrated players I think, since he does play for the Nats. but overall as you say at this point all round he is the best out of the first round.
 
Ryan Zimmerman is a very talented player, but I think ranking him ahead of Braun is quite a leap. I know Braun has some issues on defense, but he is also having one of the best offensive starts to a carrer in baseball history.
 
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