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Ryan Zimmerman injury complicates Nationals' division title hopes

With Ryan Zimmerman potentially sidelined for the rest of the regular season, the Nationals could be forced to find an upgrade at third base at the trade deadline.

The Nationals have been without Ryan Zimmerman for the last week, and they may have to go on without him for much longer than that. According to’s Bill Ladson, Zimmerman has a Grade 3 strain of his right hamstring, an injury he suffered running out a ground ball on July 22, and could miss a significant portion of the remainder of the season. Grade 3 is the most severe category of muscle injury, indicating that the muscle is torn at least half of the way through. The Nationals have neither confirmed nor denied Ladson’s report, in which he cites “two baseball sources,” but it seems likely that the Nationals will have to mount their stretch-drive push for the National League East title without their third baseman.

This isn’t a new situation for the Nationals. Already this season, Zimmerman missed 44 games with a thumb injury suffered in mid-April and six games with this injury. Despite those absences, the Nationals are still in first place, but they are 34-19 (.642) in the 53 games in which Zimmerman has appeared and just 23-28 (.451) in the 51 (adding one game he sat out due to his arthritic shoulder in April) he has missed. Some of that is coincidence: During Zimmerman’s first disabled list stay, the Nationals also endured injuries to Bryce Harper, Gio Gonzalez, Adam LaRoche, and Wilson Ramos. Still, Zimmerman was swinging the bat well before he got hurt in April and was doing so again in July, hitting .387/.437/.613 in his last 17 games leading up to this latest injury.

When Zimmerman was last hurt, the Nationals simply moved sophomore Anthony Rendon over to third base and restored Danny Espinosa to his former status as the team’s regular second baseman. That solution sounds tidier than it actually is, as Espinosa, despite his rebound from a brutal 2013 season, is still no more than a replacement-level player. In 71 starts this season, Espinosa has hit .212/.273/.347, and since the calendar flipped to May, he has hit .181/.255/.285 in 212 plate appearances. Regardless of his role, that's sub-replacement-level production even for a middle infielder.

Of the team’s other in-house options, rookie Zach Walters holds the promise of significant power, albeit with similar batting-average and on-base-percentage concerns. Veteran journeyman Kevin Frandsen, meanwhile, is not a clear upgrade on Espinosa and, as a righty, doesn’t even offer a potential platoon partner, given that the switch-hitting Espinosa has been far better against lefties this year.

Given all that and the fact that there are less than 30 hours left until the non-waiver trading deadline, one could take the Nationals’ refusal to comment on Zimmerman’s injury as their attempt to keep down the price of the infielders they now seem likely to target. The Nationals have reportedly already inquired as to the availability of Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre, and Rangers scouts were seen checking out the Nationals’ Triple-A club over the weekend. Beltre, who is signed through 2016, is a particularly compelling possibility because of the expectation that Zimmerman’s arthritic shoulder will result in his being moved to first base next year in the wake of LaRoche’s free agency. The Nationals could also target the Diamondbacks' Aaron Hill or Martin Prado, or the Mets' Daniel Murphy, two of whom were listed among my top infield targets last week.

One player on that list who will not be made available to Washington, however, is Marlins third baseman Casey McGehee. That’s because the Marlins, having defeated the Nationals on Monday and Tuesday night, are now just five games out in the division and are once again considering themselves serious contenders. Miami has won nine of their last ten, five of those coming against Atlanta and Washington, and could move to within four games of the Nationals if they can complete the sweep Wednesday behind Brad Hand, who has a 2.43 ERA since returning to the rotation at the start of the month.

Accordingly, one of the hot rumors going around at the moment is that the Marlins are seeking to add a starting pitcher, even checking in on Jon Lester, according to ESPN’s Jim Bowden. More likely targets for Miami are the Athletics' Tommy Milone and the PadresIan Kennedy. The point remains, however, that with Miami once again ascendant and potentially loading up for a possible playoff run, and the Braves just half a game out (albeit two behind the Nats in the loss column), Zimmerman’s injury creates a hole in the Washington lineup that needs to be filled quickly, lest it fester for the rest of the summer. The Nationals’ pursuit of their second NL East title in three years just became considerably more challenging.