VIERA, Fla. - For all of his recent accolades and additional recognition, for all of his eye-opening plays in the field, numbers at the plate and millions in the bank, Ryan Zimmerman is aching to accomplish one of the few things he has yet to do in a Washington Nationals uniform.
Play for a team with a winning record.
The 25-year-old third baseman put together quite a 2009, the first season of a five-year, $45 million contract: .292 batting average, .364 on-base percentage, 33 homers, 106 RBIs, 30-game hitting streak. It all led to his All-Star game debut and his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards.
"That stuff's great," Zimmerman said, "but, ultimately, I want to win."
As Washington prepares to host the two-time defending National League champion Philadelphia Phillies on opening day next week, Zimmerman is hoping his club's roster changes - and the impending arrival of a certain right-handed pitcher by the name of Stephen Strasburg - will help turn things around after consecutive 100-loss seasons.
"The more you do individually, the more it helps the team - and then you're winning. That's more special to me than all the awards," the soft-spoken Zimmerman said in an interview in the home clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium. "Maybe this year, we can get over that hump and win some more games and have some meaningful games in the second half of the season. To be able to produce well in that atmosphere would be even more special."
There is a ways to go, of course. But Zimmerman figures that if it doesn't happen in 2010, then the Nationals should show significant improvement by 2011.
"A lot of people are kind of pointing toward next year as the year where we finally might have the stuff to really, really, really make something happen here," Zimmerman said.
He was a first-round draft pick out of the University of Virginia in June 2005, and made his major league debut that September. In 2006, he was the runner-up to Florida Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez in NL Rookie of the Year voting after batting .287 with 20 homers and 110 RBIs. Injuries limited Zimmerman to 106 games in 2008, when he hit .283 with 14 homers and 51 RBIs, before his breakout 2009.
Add it all up, and he enters this season with a career .284 batting average, 91 homers and 364 RBIs. Never one to publicly state statistical goals, he is all too aware of some other, less-impressive numbers: Washington's win-loss records in Zimmerman's first four full seasons were 71-91, 73-89, 59-102, 59-103.
"In his major league career, he certainly has lost his share of games and hasn't been on a winning team - certainly nothing his fault," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. "He's a terrific player, and he's going to be a consistent player, on both sides of the ball."
It was Zimmerman's defense that initially drew raves from teammates and opponents. Success with the bat has followed.
There might be better to come, even if you won't hear Zimmerman contemplate that.
Others will, however.
"This is about the time players peak. About the 26- to 30-year-old range is when players generally, through history, play their best baseball. I think we would all take what he has done to this point. If you could pencil that in every year, you'd say, ‘Yeah, I'll take that right now,' " manager Jim Riggleman said. "But who knows? There might be more there."
Said rookie shortstop Ian Desmond, who credits Zimmerman with setting a good example for how to be professional: "He's going to be a superstar, and everyone knows that. It's just a matter of time. When people come and watch him play, they get blown away. I do - and I'm a player."
If Strasburg, the No. 1 overall pick in last year's amateur draft with the blazing fastball and record contract, is widely considered the next face of the franchise, it's clear who holds that spot nowadays.
There are four images of a player in action on the front of the team's 2010 media guide - all are of Zimmerman.
No one in the Nationals' clubhouse begrudges those sorts of nods to the guy they all call "Zim" and many refer to as "our leader," in starting pitcher John Lannan's words.
Indeed, anyone you ask sounds pretty darned excited to see their third baseman getting what they consider his due.
"The time was going to come," Lannan said. "He's always been on the scene and on the verge. Sooner or later, you knew, he was going to blow up."
Now Zimmerman wants his team to make strides, too.