It’s a fair question to ask: which Washington entity has endured larger struggles since 2005- the executive and legislative branches of our government, or the Washington Nationals? While the former has implemented a pair of “bailout” packages to quell an economic maelstrom, the Nats very much remain a toxic asset.
Fresh off a sordid 102-loss campaign in which the club posted a run differential of -184, Washington’s big league ballclub could use all the help they can get. Luckily, if you squint really hard, you can see the beginnings of a turnaround.
Talented-but-volatile outfielder Elijah Dukes turned in an impressive season (a .382 wOBA with plus defense in right field). Center fielder Lastings Milledge and backstop Jesus Flores have oscillated between tantalizing and frustrating since arriving from the New York Mets via a trade and the Rule V Draft, respectively. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman has sort of stagnated at the plate (wOBA’s from 2006-2008: .348, .340, .336), but the Virginia product is still just 24 years old and has been a big asset overall with an average of 3.9 Value Wins over the past three seasons. The offense was pretty lousy last season (with a .309 wOBA that ranked ahead of only the A’s), but one can at least dream upon Dukes and Zimmerman blossoming into all-around forces while simultaneously praying that Flores and Milledge can harness their control of the strike zone.
While there are some offensive pieces to the contending puzzle present, the rotation remains rather bleak. The Nats’ starting pitchers placed 28th in team FIP, faring better than only the lowly Rangers and Orioles. Presently, Washington’s rotation hopes lie in the hands of imports Daniel Cabrera and Scott Olsen, once-promising arms whose performances have tailed off dramatically. While expecting a rebound from either Cabrera or Olsen is a dubious proposition and incumbent “ace” John Lannan looks more like an adequate back-end starter than any sort of rotation headliner, Washington does have one potential ace up its sleeve.
Jordan Zimmermann, a 22 year-old right-hander, has quickly established himself as the top pitching prospect in the organization. A second-round pick in 2007 out of Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Zimmermann signed for $495,000 as the 67th player taken overall. As Baseball America noted at the time, a confluence of factors caused the four-pitch righty to hover under the radar somewhat:
“Scouts haven’t had an easy time following him this spring, however. Zimmermann broke his jaw in two places when he was struck by a batted ball while pitching live batting practice during an offseason workout. He missed three games and lost 10 pounds, and having wisdom teeth pulled during the season didn’t help him regain his strength. Bad early-season weather also made it difficult to keep him on a regular schedule.”
While that string of inauspicious events limited his scouting exposure, Zimmermann has enjoyed nothing but good luck since signing on the dotted line. Sent to the New York Penn League in the summer of ’07, the 6-2, 200 pounder immediately opened eyes in a 49-inning stint. The 2007 Division III College World Series MVP punched out 62 batters (11.39 K/9) and walked 16 (2.94 BB/9), posting a 2.18 FIP in the process.
One might expect a grizzled college pitcher to feast upon younger, less-experienced batters, but Zimmermann continued to eat up batsmen in 2008. Assigned to High-A Potomac to begin the year, Zimmermann quickly proved that his low-90’s heat, hard upper-80’s slider, mid-70’s hook and low-80’s changeup were no match for the Carolina League. In 27.1 frames, he compiled a 31/8 K/BB ratio and a 2.29 FIP. Bumped up to Double-A Harrisburg, Zimmermann continued to miss bats (8.69 K/9) and exhibited decent control (3.29 BB/9) in 106.2 innings (good for a 3.55 FIP). He kept the ball on the ground at both levels as well, with a 55 GB% at Potomac and a slightly above-average 48 GB% at Harrisburg.
There’s much to like about Zimmermann from both a statistical and scouting viewpoint. He has whiffed over a batter per inning during his rapid ascent through the minors, while exhibiting solid enough control and earning the adulation of the scouting community at the same time. Zimmermann ranked as Washington’s number one prospect following the ’08 season (per Baseball America) and checked in at #42 on Keith Law’s ranking of the top 100 prospects in the game. Said Law:
“Zimmermann is a classic four-pitch pitcher who changes speeds well and commands his stuff, locating his 90-94 mph four-seamer to all parts of the zone. He also keeps the ball down. His best pitch remains his mid-80s slider, short and tight with good tilt, although his curve is tighter now than it was when he was an amateur. Plus, he turns his changeup over well….He’s not a potential ace but a very high-probability No. 3 with a chance to be better than that because of his plus command.”
Zimmermann might not be the classic fire-breathing pitching prospect who causes radar guns to melt, but his deep repertoire, strong peripherals and quick rise up the organizational ladder suggest that he could establish himself as Washington’s top arm in short order. Given the paucity of alternatives and the likelihood that the ballclub will spend another year in the NL East’s basement, the Nationals have every reason to give Zimmermann a look sometime during the 2009 season. Washington’s other Zimmerman(n) should stimulate a stagnant starting five and is well worth a look in fantasy leagues when he gets the call.
A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at firstname.lastname@example.org and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.