Jordan Zimmermann, Not Stephen Strasburg, is the Key to Nationals' Future

Farid RushdiAnalyst IDecember 31, 2009

NEW YORK - APRIL 26:  Jordan Zimmermann #27 of the Washington Nationals pitches against the New York Mets on April 26, 2009 at Citi Field in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

In the days before the arrival of Stephen Strasburg, there was already a pitching prospect considered good enough to be the team’s future No. 1 starter.

His name was Jordan Zimmermann.

Zimmermann was a second-round supplemental pick obtained from the Chicago Cubs for the loss of Alfonso Soriano (who do you think the Cubs would rather have these days?).

He was a surprise pick out of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, a Division III program that played most of its season in the snow, muck, and mire of Wisconsin’s endless winter.

Zimmermann was a late bloomer. He went undrafted out of high school thanks to his unimpressive 87-mph fastball, but he blossomed in college. By his senior year, his fastball was up to 95-mph and he went 10-0 with a 2.08 ERA, leading the Pointers to a Division III championship.

In parts of three minor league seasons with Washington, Zimmermann went 15-5 with a 2.81 ERA. He allowed just 7.1 hits and 2.9 walks per nine-innings while striking out 9.9.

The kid from nowhere was the real deal.

He joined the Nationals on April 20th of last season and started 16 games, going 3-5 with a 4.63 ERA. In typical rookie fashion, he was stellar on some days and abysmal on others.

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Half of his 16 starts were quality starts (six innings or more pitched, three runs or less allowed); he pitched 51 innings, gave up just 39 hits, walked 11, and struck out 44. He had a minuscule 1.93 ERA.

Those other eight starts, though, were ugly. Zimmermann gave up 56 hits and 18 walks in 40 innings. His ERA was 7.63.

But that was expected. Rookies struggle. Rookies learn from their mistakes. Rookies get better.

But Jordan Zimmermann didn’t have the chance.

In late July, Zimmermann began to feel some tenderness in his elbow, which quickly turned into significant pain. He saw the team doctor, who diagnosed the injury as a ligament tear that needed “Tommy John” surgery to repair. A second and a third opinion found the same thing.

Zimmermann had the surgery in August and afterwards, general manager Mike Rizzo reported that the team expected that their prize prospect would miss up to 18 months. Said Rizzo, “We'll have him back—full go—for spring training 2011, though he may pitch sometime in 2010. But you'll see the real Zimmermann in 2011.”

The loss of Jordan Zimmermann was a real punch-in-the-gut for the Nationals because he represented the team's hope for the future. But the despondency and dread that came with his surgery lasted all of two days.

Zimmermann had his surgery on August 15th of last season. Two days later, the Nationals came to terms with their No. 1 draft pick Stephen Strasburg, considered the best pitching prospect of the draft era.

Jordan who?

The Nationals will probably find four quality starters to lead the team in 2010. Jason Marquis and John Lannan will lead the rotation and Scott Olsen—if healthy—will be the team’s No. 3 starter.

That leaves two spots to fill and four quality pitchers available to fill them. Ross Detwiler had a 1.93 ERA in September after returning to his college mechanics, J.D. Martin and Craig Stammen pitched well in their rookie seasons, and Matt Chico—who is ready to return from his Tommy John surgery in 2010—was the Nationals’ best pitcher in 2007.

And in 2011, Stephen Strasburg will, without question, be in the Nationals’ rotation, likely as the No. 1 starter.

Zimmermann will be back in 2011 along with his three “plus plus” pitches (scout lingo for “out” pitches). But will he be as good as he was? Can a pitcher have his throwing elbow reconstructed and return a year later with his talent fully intact?

The Washington Nationals can make the jump from bad team to playoff contender without Jordan Zimmermann, but with him, they will have one of the best starting rotations in the National League in 2011.

Dr. Frank Jobe did the first Tommy John surgery on, strangely enough, Tommy John, in 1974. To that point, John had pitched 12 seasons, winning 124 games with a 2.94 ERA.

The surgery, which replaces the damaged elbow ligament with a forearm tendon, kept John out until the 1976 season. Over the next 12 seasons, he won another 153 games with a 3.35 ERA.

Certainly, the surgery worked for Tommy John. But was he the exception or the rule?

Since 1974, more than 160 pitchers have had Tommy John surgery and almost 10 percent of all pitchers on baseball’s 2009 opening day rosters had the procedure.

Just a sampling of pitchers who have had the surgery include: Rod Beck, Erik Bedard, Kris Benson, A.J. Burnett, Chris Carpenter, Ryan Dempster, Darren Dreifort, Adam Eaton, John Franco, Eric Gagne, Mike Gonzalez, Mike Hampton, Tim Hudson, Jason Isringhausen, Billy Koch, Jon Leiber, Matt Mantei, Russ Ortiz, Carl Pavano, Kenny Rogers, John Smoltz, Billy Wagner, and Kerry Wood.

Let’s look at a handful of those players and see if we can get a feel for what the Nationals—and Jordan Zimmermann—have to look forward to.

When the surgery was announced last August, Rizzo said that the surgery’s success rate, having the pitcher return to pre-surgery form, is 85-90 percent.

A.J. Burnett (2003)  :     Before: 30-32, 4.84        After: 70-53, 3.83

Chris Carpenter (2003)   Before: 49-50, 4.83        After: 68-24, 2.91

Ryan Dempster (2004)   Before: 52-56, 4.77         After: 36-34, 3.60

Denny Neagle (2004)     Before: 124-92, 4.24       After: Never Returned

Mike Hampton (2005)    Before: 138-101, 3.97      After: 10-14, 5.12

Carl Pavano (2006)         Before: 61-64, 4.27        After: 19-14, 5,18

John Smoltz (2000)        Before: 157-113, 3.35     After: 56-42, 3.28

Jason Isringhausen (99)   Before: 17-18, 4.43         After: 28-32, 3.20, 293 saves

Matt Mantei (1996)         Before: 1-1, 5.34             After: 13-17, 3.90, 93 saves

Paul Byrd (2003)            Before: 52-46, 4.39         After: 57-50, 4.42

Kerry Wood (1999)         Before: 13-6, 3.40           After: 67-58, 3.71, 54 saves

For the most part, pitchers who have undergone Tommy John surgery have returned to have long and productive careers. With a few exceptions, hits, walks, and strikeouts per-nine innings have remained constant. Most of the pitchers who never came back from the surgery or pitched poorly were in the later stages of their careers and in their mid-30’s.

Some, like Billy Koch and Kerry Wood, thought they were better and stronger afterwards. Both claimed to have added speed to their fast balls. Koch claimed to have reached 108 MPH on the radar gun and Wood believed his fastball was faster and had more movement.

To save wear and tear on their elbows, John Smoltz and Kerry Wood became closers (though Smoltz returned to the starting rotation after four dominant seasons in the bullpen). Others, like Matt Morris, spent a year in the bullpen building their strength before returning to the rotation.

Although I would never have thought this at the time, Jordan Zimmermann’s surgery may have been a blessing in disguise for the Nationals. If Zimmermann was available in 2010, I seriously doubt that the team would have signed free agent Jason Marquis and Detwiler, Stammen, and Martin wouldn’t have had the opportunity to gain valuable major league experience.

The Nationals will have formed a solid rotation in 2010 without Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. Come 2011, they will add those two starters, the two premier young pitchers in the National League East.

Think about this for a moment. In 2011, the Nationals will have a rotation that will feature two legitimate No. 1 starters in Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. They will also have Jason Marquis (13-10, 4.17 over last three seasons) and John Lannan (3.90 career ERA).

The Nationals’ No. 1 starter in 2009 will be the team’s No. 4 starter in 2011.

If Scott Olsen shows that he is healthy next season, he will likely be the fifth starter in 2011. If not, the Nationals have Craig Stammen, J.D. Martin, Matt Chico, and Ross Detwiler to fill that final spot.

To become a truly competitive team, the Nationals just need Jordan Zimmermann to return as a serviceable pitcher. But if he is one of the 90 percent who come back fully healed, the Nationals will have a real chance to make the playoffs in 2011.

For five seasons, Nationals’ fans have hoped that the team would one day find a scenario that would finally lead the team out of the muck and mire of last place and make a run at the division crown.

Jordan Zimmermann is that scenario. One day, the Mets, Phillies, Braves, and Marlins will fly into Washington and shake their collective heads at the prospect of facing Strasburg and Zimmermann on consecutive nights.

And all will finally be well in Washington, D.C.


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