The Orioles farm system improved by leaps and bounds during general manager Mike Elias’s first season in charge of the club. Exciting new talent was added to the organization and many of the young players that were already in place saw a boost to their performance. One of those pre-Elias players was left-handed pitcher Bruce Zimmermann.
Zimmermann is a Baltimore native that has only been in the O’s system for a little over a year. He was traded to his hometown team at the 2018 trade deadline in a swap with the Braves that sent Kevin Gausman and Darren O’Day to Atlanta in exchange for Evan Phillips, Jean Carlos Encarnacion, Brett Cumberland and Zimmermann.
The former fifth round pick out of the University of Mount Olive was regarded as one of the less interesting prospects in the deal. Zimmermann’s arsenal includes a high-80’s fastball to go with a slider, change-up and curveball. The word often used to describe him is “pitchability” due to his pinpoint control paired with less-than-stellar stuff.
Here is his scouting report from 2080 Baseball, dated February 12, 2019:
He’s the type of pitching prospect who generally hits a ceiling against more advanced competition. The lefty pounds the zone with a four-pitch mix, sitting in the high-80s with his fastball and topping out at 91 mph. His slider and changeup are fringy (but usable) offerings, and he’ll mix a lollipop curve at times for another look. Zimmermann could wind up a high-minors depth starter, but the pitchability and guile give him a chance at a long relief role in the big leagues.
Zimmermann struggled in his first taste of action with the Orioles in 2018. Over 21.1 innings, all with Double-A Bowie, the southpaw had a 5.06 ERA, a 1.50 WHIP, a .287 batting average against, struck out 16 and walked seven. It was not a surprising outcome. He had started the 2018 season in High-A with the Braves and had only tossed 28.2 innings with their Double-A affiliate before the move. It can take some time to adjust to the level.
The 24-year-old returned to Bowie to begin 2019 and looked like a completely different pitcher. Over 101.1 innings, Zimmermann had just a 2.58 ERA and a .227 batting average against. He also struck out 101.1 batters, walked 24 and had a 1.20 WHIP. Across the board, Zimmermann saw improvement to his game. That is exactly what a team hopes to have happen when sending a player back to a level where they already have experience.
Zimmermann did so well that the Orioles rewarded him with a promotion to Triple-A Norfolk at the end of July. While there, his numbers began to revert back to what was showing up at Bowie in 2018. In 38.2 innings, he had a 4.89 ERA, .291 batting average against and 1.60 WHIP.
There is almost no information available on what Zimmermann is doing differently, if anything, this season. He is the type of pitcher that may simply need to learn about a league and its hitters in order to see improvement on the stat sheet.
[EDIT 8:39 a.m. ET: According to Luke Siler of Orioles Hangout, Zimmerman worked hard in the off-season to increase his velocity. As a result, he has worked in the low 90’s and touched 95 this season. In addition, his slider has improved as well. Follow Luke on Twitter @The_Luke_Siler]
The Loyola Blakefield product is a legitimate prospect, but you won’t find him on the well-known lists at MLB Pipeline or Fangraphs. That’s not because he has no shot at making the big leagues, but rather because his ceiling still remains rather conservative when compared to some of the other young players in the organization. Given that he has made it to Triple-A, he will almost certainly make it to the big league in some way. How long he sticks around and what role he will have once there remains up for debate.
The Orioles have a similar pitching prospect elsewhere in the system in fellow lefty Alex Wells. He attacks hitters with a similar pitch mix to Zimmermann, but the difference is control. Zimmermann has good control; Wells has elite control. For hurlers that have middling velocity, that could make all of the difference.
Zimmermann may get an invite to big league spring training in February simply because there are so few major league ready arms in the organization. But in all likelihood he will return to Norfolk in order to refine his approach with the plan of him making his Baltimore debut at some point in 2020 as a spot starter or swing-man out of the bullpen.
It’s possible that if Zimmermann proves himself at the highest level of minor league baseball that he could re-emerge on those national prospect lists. But it won’t matter if he doesn’t. The Orioles have developed him into, at the very least, a quality depth piece in the minor leagues. As seen with the big league club’s pitching this season, that has been area of need all summer long.