Last year's discussion
A lot of last year's discussions were obvious. The Nats were pretty much set all over the place. For first base, my take was no different than pretty much everyone else's. The Nats were stuck starting Zimm because even though he was rarely healthy (156 games played in 2014 and 2015) they had him on a big contract deal and when he did play - he hit, so there wasn't an obvious upgrade without spending a lot of money. I noted it was a bad position for the Nats as they pretty much had to do this and it was almost sure not to work. So good for me on nailing that because it didn't work at all.
Zimm still got injured (missed 40+ games) and now lost his ability to hit, putting up a .218 / .272 / .370 line that was a Ryan Howard away from creating the worst first-base situation in baseball. The assumption that Robinson would help mitigate the problem didn't work out either as Zimm was healthy enough to play a bulk of the games and Clint only put up a .235 / .305 / .332 line when he did get to hit. First base was a disaster and in my mind is the Nats biggest problem going into 2017*
My out of the box plan would have been fine but not earth-shaking, at least not for 2016. Trading Zimm and starting Robinson would have probably produced better results. How much better? Probably just a little but every bit counts I guess. More realistically it would free up the Nats to make moves now based on the idea that first base needed an external solution. As for who the Nats got back I basically said trade him to the Mariners for any of their failing OF prospects (re: Not Alan Jackson). Would any of them had worked out? Austin Wilson - no. Gabby Guerrero - no. Patrick Kivlehan - no. Jabari Henry - no. Brayan Hernandez - eh. Tyler O'Neill - yes! Ok let's say the Nats got O'Neill then! ... ok the trade would have been a nothing but the contract (or at least some of the guaranteed money) would now be freed up - so overall win.
The Nats start Ryan Zimmerman with Clint Robinson as his back-up.
Reasoning for presumed plan
If Ryan Zimmerman was almost untradable last year - to the point I had the Nats eating money and taking back a mediocre prospect from a thin system - then he's literally radioactive this year. Coming off his third straight partial year, having his worst offensive performance ever and still owed at least 48 million over the next 3 years (that inclues 2 million buyout at end) no one is touching Zimm, not unless the Nats eat 90% of this deal. Zimm's on the team then.
Ok well if he's on the team he likely gets at least one more crack at playing first full-time. Last year was a disaster, yes, but you can look to a few things to give you hope heading into 2017. First, last year was the only year he hasn't hit. Even when spending half the year on the DL, he was an above average bat when playing. He had an OPS of .858 in May before facing injuries the rest of the year. The fancy stats don't suggest he's hitting the ball too softly which is usually a huge warning sign of being done. He spent a lot of the year hitting the ball as hard as anyone. His post-season performance (6-17 with 2 doubles and 3 walks) was promising.
If Zimm gets another crack at first, it only makes sense to give Robinson, a good hitter in 2015 who is cheap and compliments Zimm's RHB, another crack as his back-up.
Problems with the presumed plan
It's pretty obvious, isn't it? Zimm's always had an issue staying on the field. Last year he wasn't just a bad hitter, he was terrible. It might have been a slight aberration but you have to think the most likely scenario for 2017 would have him playing say... 100 games and hitting like .230 with unimpressive patience and power. That'll put him, and the Nats, near the bottom of the first base rankings again.
All the reasons for hope can be dismissed. Yes, last year was his first bad year at the plate. But he's been trending down since 2013 so a 69 OPS+ might be a surprise but a below average number would not have been. His OPS in May was very good, but he wasn't hurt in April or most of June and his OPSs there (.603 and .573) were not good. He did hit the ball hard but that was more concentrated in the beginning of the year and as we've discussed before, while he could hit it hard, he had issues hitting it hard and not directly into the ground. His post season performance is of course dealing with small sample size and it came after extra rest that he wouldn't get during the regular season.
There are also more worrying fancy stats, like a big drop in contact in the zone coupled with an increase in swings overall. The second year in a row where Zimm can't produce results against fastballs.
Meanwhile, Clint Robinson has had so few major league plate appearances (590) that you can't really pin down which Robinson is the "real" one, 2015 or 2016. He could easily be as bad as last year again. Given he'll be 32 in February the smarter money is probably on more 2016 than 2015 in Clint's future.
We don't usually talk about these things because they don't usually apply to first baseman but it's important to note neither of these guys are wizards in the field and are slow around the bases, so if they don't hit they don't offer much.
The Nats got lucky last year. Basically the right side of the infield did what it was supposed to but in reverse and cranked up... to the extreme! Murphy put up an unexpected MVP type season while Zimm cratered. Along with that, the other line-up issues (Espy, CF) and his strong May keeping his stats ok, allowed Zimm to sort of fly under the radar during the year. There is no denying though, he was terrible and the Nats can't count on another lucky season
It's time to try something new. I'm not sure what (we'll get to one idea) but the Nats usually move on a season sooner rather than a season later. You could argue last year was a season too late, but this year definitely is. The Nats need to find a new answer at first base. There are multiple possibilities. You can always sign a FA or trade for someone, but the fact that it's first base opens things up. The Nats can sign/trade for a 2B and shift Murphy to 1st. The Nats can sign/trade for a LF and shift Werth to 1st. The possiblities are limitless**
It will be a tough move but it has to be done. You can't stick with Zimm. If he were relatively healthy and just had an off-year, ok stick with him. If he was still hitting ok, just not able to get on the field, ok stick with him. But he's doing neither. A move has to be made.
Out of the box idea.
How about LaRoche?
Ok seriously there are literally so many options that are reasonable, if you accept Zimm doesn't have to start, that it's hard to come up with something out of the box. From offering the Twins a Giolito/Robles/plus package for Dozier and shifting Murphy, to offering the Diamondbacks an EVERYONE package for Goldschmidt to signing Steve Pearce to a reasonable 2 year deal to take your pick. So how about this:
Trade to the White Sox for Adam Eaton and shift BRYCE to first. I've talked in the past about possibly shifting Rendon to first to help keep him healthy. The problem with that is Rendon is an excellent third baseman. You'd be wasting that. Bryce is not an excellent OFer. I like Bryce but his athletic ability has never translated to anything more than "eh" in the OF with a strong arm. He may not like as it will hurt his potential FA market, but if the Nats aren't going to re-sign him what do they care? Bryce at first keeps him healthy as possible (remember we all think his struggles this year are at least partly injury related) and Eaton is a good defender in RF (he'd aged out of CF) and a good bat. Imagine a Werth type trading a little power for defense and speed. Plus he's cheap through 2021. 2021! With team options the last two years!
Seriously any team with a strong farm system not looking to throw it at the White Sox for Eaton + Sale or Eaton + Quintana is a foolish team.***
*A lot of talk is centered around the idea the Nats have to move Turner to SS to get Danny out of there. That's a plan. However in my mind Danny is 4th in line for "things the Nats must solve" behind First, Catcher, and Center Field. Maybe even behind closer though I don't think that's a talent issue like these other ones. That's more a question of choice.
**Not true. I literally listed them. There is a limit
***Why aren't the White Sox better than with all this realitvely cheap tradeable talent? (There's also Todd Frazier! and Jose Abreu!) They played in the toughest division in baseball last year. They lack that one definite All-Star type bat (though Frazier or Abreu are capable of having that type of year), while having two gaping holes in the lineup. Sale/Quintana aren't the lights out #1/#2 you think they are, but merely above average starters, while #3/#4 were holding on and the #5 spot might have been worst in the majors. It's an interesting team, who's ages and contracts suggest "Strike Now" so the moves last off-season made sense but they needed to go further. Thing is - only Frazier is a FA after next year so there is still time to try in 2017, so an offer will have to be good.