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Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Zimmerman telegram: Back in three weeks

By Christina Kahrl

Ryan Zimmerman's departure for the DL is a different sort of disabling injury than the Dodgers watching Rafael Furcal go away for six weeks or more. Not that the Nationals have an equally valid claim for postseason possibilities -- hope and faith in Washington where baseball’s concerned is not yet even a quadrennial exercise.

Zimmerman
The Nationals lose the face of their franchise for about three weeks.
But losing Zimmerman is the worst sort of news, yet of a kind that’s all too common for a team that seems to specialize in glum outcomes. His absence for perhaps three weeks can be put atop the pile of deferred joys for Nats fans, joining the anticipation of Stephen Strasburg’s eventual resurrection, as the Nats can now at least blame their misfortunes on the absence of both their best position player as well as their best pitcher.

How bad does this hurt? There’s the performance element to consider, of course. Zimmerman was projected among the 20 best players in baseball per Baseball Prospectus’ flavor of wins above replacement metric, WARP, bracketed at 19th overall by Mark Teixeira and Nelson Cruz. By definition, that’s marquee talent, so it isn’t someone you replace, it’s someone you miss.

Not to trash Jerry Hairston Jr., the man most likely to get a bigger chunk of at-bats at the hot corner in Zimmerman’s place. Hairston is one of the finest active examples of what a mediocre second baseman can do to have a multi-year major-league career -- become a multi-positional supersub. He’s easily root-worthy, and in the age of the seven-man bullpen, his ability to play six positions is extremely valuable as a roster-expanding utility player. Glorious as that might be, however, he and Alex Cora just don’t bring down the thunder when they step in at the plate. Hairston’s projected .239 True Average might be stupendous feats of batsmanship relative to Cora or the already-dealt Alberto Gonzalez (both projected to .222 TAv marks), but the MLB-wide average for third basemen in 2010 was .268, and Zimmerman was projected to deliver a .293 TAv.

No, beyond the basic irreplaceability of the man is the fact that Jim Riggleman’s bench just got hit in one of its dangerously shallow elements. True to his past form skippering the Padres or Cubs, Riggleman has made space for power on the bench by keeping Laynce Nix and Matt Stairs, but neither one of them play third base. At best, you might see Riggleman get really aggressive with that pair of pinch-hitting options -- although pinch-hitting for position players in the National League isn’t that common -- rather than exacerbate his offensive deficit by adopting one-run strategies. That could be fun to watch.

But "fun to watch" goes to the heart of the matter: I might enjoy watching Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond get their careers going, and if you’re a serious seamhead, so might you. But it’s hard to sell tickets in the thousands on that kind of proposition, and attendance has already slipped below RFK-level attendance to 1.8 million after a one-year bump of 400,000 fannies in Nationals Park’s inaugural season in 2008. An early injury to Zimmerman could drive attendance lower still, hardly a happy proposition for the Lerner family.

As much as both the owners and GM Mike Rizzo are buckled in for the long haul, it’s just tough to see an incidental injury to the team’s best ballplayer take that extra bit of steam out of a season that, at best, was going to be framed as part of their build-up, a reconstruction effort that just moved a little bit further beyond most fans’ event horizon. Rizzo might be signed through 2015, but Zimmerman’s five-year extension from 2009 is already in its hump year, and runs out after 2013. That’s two years he’ll get to play with Jordan Zimmermann and Jayson Werth, with Strasburg and Drew Storen, with that young middle infield. Those might be compelling reasons to stick around, but will it come together for a competitive-enough team for him to entertain competitive-enough offers?

A decision to sign Zimmerman for his age-30 season and beyond will be the most difficult decision the team will have to confront over the course of Rizzo’s scheduled stewardship. As much as you might expect that Zimmerman, a UVa product, might like to stay close to home, if the franchise reboot doesn’t pick up steam, it’s hard to expect the first-ever "face of the franchise" players to want to stick around.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter here.