Last year was a big year for the Nats’ third baseman. Ryan Zimmerman had by far his best year at the plate, hitting .292/.364/.525 with 33 home runs. He finished 6th in the majors in OPS for his position, behind Sandoval, Reynolds, ARod, Michael Young and Longoria. Pretty good company there. He also, you may recall, managed a 30 game hit streak.

As for his fielding, if you think he looked good in 2009, well, your eyes do not deceive you. In terms of what Fangraphs lists as qualified players, he finished the season with an UZR/150 of 20.1, ranking him second among all 3B behind Beltre. It also put him 4th among all fielders. On top of all that, he turned 25 at the end of the season. That is an age, in baseball, where players are just starting to come into their own. In other words, he may still be getting better.

Fangraphs lists him 8th on the list for WAR – wins above replacement – in 2009. That basically means he was the 8th best position player, at least according to one hitting and fielding combined measurement, in the entire league. #1 on the list was Zobrist, who had a better hitting season than Zimmerman and started all over the field, including 89 games as a middle infielder. Also on that list are the obvious names – Pujols, Mauer, Utley, Jeter, Hanley and Longoria. That’s it. Those are the guys ahead of him.

So what is there left for him to do? The third basemen who can beat him with a bat are few and far between. Longoria will always be competition, but Sandoval may or may not be up there next year. Young had a resurgence but probably isn’t quite that good. Reynolds will probably be streaky all his career, some years like 2009’s 44 homer show, others not so good. ARod is amazing but he is 10 years older, his time is limited, although he shows no signs of slowing down despite his hip problems.

The truth is, there isn’t much left for Zimmerman. In terms of MVP votes, 30 HRs, 100 Rs and 100 RBIs would get you some, especially at third base. But he only got 2. Hitting much better than he has just isn’t that likely. Sure, he may jump from being the 6th best to the 3rd best. He may be the 2nd or 3rd most valuable guy in the league some years, but it’s not a significant difference from where he’s at now. Nats fans should probably be more proud of the player they have there, he’s one of the best playing in the game right now, and that’s not hyperbole or exaggeration.

So for him, he’s really got two important things to do: Maintain and Lead.

It sounds simple enough – as an individual, he’s got to keep doing what he’s doing. Even if he doesn’t improve one bit, he’s one of the top players in the league. If he wants recognition, he can do a few things. He could be on a team in a bigger baseball market, he could be on a winning team, and he can keep his hitting up for a few years until people are forced to recognize him. As for the last point, it’s all up to him, he’s just gotta keep it up. I believe the other ones will come if the Nats ever get good. Zimmerman’s gotta be the guy that drags them there.

He has to be the undisputed clubhouse leader. I’m not saying he’s not, in fact, with my limited access I have no idea. I just know that he’s gotta be the leader if he wants to better himself. Because in order to be an MVP, to be a winner, to be a Hall of Famer, the Nats have got to be better. He’s a top player in the league and certainly the best on this team, so he’s got to do everything he can to make his team better. When they are, he’ll be seen as a better player, as unfair as that may seem. So if Zimmerman wants to take the next step into true greatness, he’s got to bring others with him. When that happens, he will be swamped with awards and recognition. Hopefully for the sake of all Nats fans out there, and the sake of Ryan’s mantle, he’ll be able to do that.

By Charlie