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When healthy, Bruce Zimmermann gave the Orioles a chance to win

Bruce Zimmermann looked the part of a back-end starter in the AL East when healthy. Where does the local product factor into the Orioles future rotation?

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Baltimore Orioles Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

Every year we joke about Jake Fox and inflated spring training statistics. Some players come to Sarasota ready to perform and do just that. Unfortunately, those eye-popping numbers often disappear once the regular season begins.

Bruce Zimmermann used an impressive spring to catapult from middle relief to the middle of the rotation. The lefty started the third game of the year and delivered a quality start against the Red Sox. The Orioles swept Boston in Fenway, and Baltimore had a new young pitcher to get excited about.

Everyone knows it’s required to point out that Zimmermann hails from Baltimore, Maryland. He played college ball at Towson, and the “local kid” aspect makes him easy to support.

A quality start against a division opponent plays no matter where a guy is from, and Zimmermann backed it up with another quality start his next time out. Suddenly, it seemed like there might be something there.

Zimmermann began the 2021 season lumped in with pitchers like Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells and Mike Baumann. None of the pitchers were Top 100 prospects, but all produced varying levels of intrigue. Zimmermann had a cup of coffee at the end of 2020, but many pegged him as a bullpen piece to kick off the year.

Zimmermann strung together several solid, but not spectacular, starts over the first month and a half. He allowed at least one earned run in every start, but only allowed more than three earned runs twice in 14 outings.

The Orioles optioned Zimmermann in early May, but recalled him two weeks later. He felt like a guy that could work about five innings and hold an opponent to two or three runs. Nobody confused him with Dave McNally, but the Orioles were desperate for starters that could complete five frames and keep the team in the game.

The Orioles’ lack of depth made Zimmermann’s injury even more of a letdown. Baltimore placed the lefty on the injured list in the middle of June with left bicep tendonitis. The Birds were careful with the 26-year-old, especially after a mostly lost 2020, but he finally made a pair of rehab starts in August. Because the Orioles cannot have nice things, Zimmermann sprained his ankle while working out.

The ankle injury could have ended his season, but Zimmermann battled back. The O’s allowed Zimmermann to make two starts before the season ended. He tossed four innings of one-run ball against the Red Sox, but failed to complete the first inning against the Blue Jays.

Zimmermann finished the year with a 5.04 ERA and 1.508 WHIP. His FIP sat slightly higher at 5.38, and he surrendered two home runs per nine innings pitched. He struck out 56 batters in 64.1 innings.

Zimmermann made the rotation because he showed an ability to pound the strike zone. For what it’s worth, he carried that approach into the regular season. His 22 walks resulted in a 7.7% walk percentage. That’s not bad for a rookie pitching in the AL East. For context, Jorge López posted 10.1%, and John Means allowed walks in a miniscule 4.4% of plate appearances.

A full season of average pitching would have guaranteed Zimmermann a spot in the rotation next season, but the small sample size will require him to earn it. His ability to throw strikes should help his cause, but the lefty will need to miss a few more bats. Keeping the ball in the park would go a long way too.

The Orioles must bring in at least one legitimate starting pitcher this offseason, but it’s impossible to predict if that will happen. Zimmermann will likely find himself competing with the same group of Lowther, Wells and Baumann for a starting spot. Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer, Chris Ellis and former Rule-5 pick Tyler Wells all figure to be in the mix as well.

It’s unfortunate that Zimmermann did not get a full season under his belt last year. He remains an unknown commodity due to the small sample size, but he does feel like a slightly safer choice compared to some of his peers.

He throws strikes, and he’s left handed. Both of those factors should give Zimmermann an edge next season. With Grayson Rodriguez and a fresh group of prospects looming, the local product needs to take a step forward to secure a spot moving forward.

Previous 2021 Orioles player reviews: Valaika/Gutierrez/Mateo, Paul Fry/César Valdez, Watkins/Greene/etc., Ramón Urias, Dean Kremer, Tanner Scott, DJ Stewart, Tyler Wells, Anthony Santander, Cole Sulser

Tomorrow: Austin Hays