Bruce Zimmermann has never been one of the Orioles’ sexiest prospects. You tend not to be when you’re a $10,000 “senior sign” out of college, as he was for the Braves in 2017. The O’s acquired Zimmermann in the July 2018 trade that sent Kevin Gausman and Darren O’Day to Atlanta. A 2019 season split between Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk saw the Baltimore-born lefty put up a combined 7-6 record with a 3.21 ERA and 134 strikeouts in 101.1 innings. In 2020, an iffy spring (4.70 ERA with 9 Ks in 7.2 innings) was followed by a bout with COVID-19, and then, two appearances for Baltimore in September with varied results. Today, though Zimmermann has a legitimate shot at cracking the roster, he’s not even on the Orioles Top 30 prospects list at all.
Scouts have tended to praise Zimmermann’s (two n’s, please) maturity more than his stuff. In September 2020, our own Mark Brown reported that the word on Zimmermann was: “a fully baked, pitchability backend starter with a good slider.” Parsing that language, Mark wrote:
“Pitchability” is another way to say that Zimmermann doesn’t have much velocity, so if he finds MLB success it’ll have to be in the classic “crafty lefty” mold. He is listed at 90-92 on his fastball, so he’s not quite as much of a soft-tosser as some other Orioles lefties, but he won’t be lighting up the radar guns either.
This March, Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen ranked Zimmermann Baltimore’s No. 28 prospect, with not exactly glowing reviews. Longenhagen praised the lefty’s “plus command” and fastball, which, if not exactly fast, “sneaks up on hitters because of its cut and carry.” Although Zimmermann has “almost robotic control” over his slider, Longenhangen felt that the pitch is often missing “real bat-missing length.” And though Zimmermann does a good job of maintaining arm speed to disguise his changeup, the pitch “lacks the movement and velocity” to miss bats consistently.
Nonetheless, this spring Zimmermann is in the thick of the competition for an Orioles rotation that looks less set by the minute. Even with few “locks” for any rotation spot, there’s still an “obvious hierarchy” when it comes to the candidates, as The Athletic’s Dan Connolly put it. Tier One is the “locks”: lefty John Means, maybe the only starter not fighting for a spot this spring. You can probably add 26-year-old righty Dean Kremer and 27-year-old lefty Keegan Akin to the pack, though Akin is having serious control issues so far.
Tier Two contains the three big-name veterans (OK, a little leeway with Wade LeBlanc, please) on minor league deals trying to show they’ve still got what it takes: LeBlanc, Félix Hernández, and Matt Harvey. Several people (including myself) have predicted that one, if not two, of the veterans will crack the rotation, just because that’s the way the front office seems to be talking about these guys . . . even though Hernández’s fastball still hasn’t touched 90, and Harvey, post-Tommy John and -TOS surgery, looks like he’s still getting reacquainted with his tools.
Then there’s Tier Three, the marginal arms whose jerseys people aren’t exactly rushing out to buy: Jorge López, Tom Eshelman, the Rule 5 guys and prospects like Zac Lowther and Mike Baumann (great arms, these last two, but untested, which means Triple-A for at least a couple months). And, of course, there’s Zimmermann himself.
We don’t have the peripheral stats on Zimmermann’s stuff this spring, but there are some signs it’s on the up. Not only did the fastball reportedly hit 95 mph in Zimmermann’s last outing, but check out the break on this slider (remember, one of Fangraphs’ concerns was that the slider lacked the “length” to fool hitters).
A good way to remember that it's Zimmermann and not Zimmerman is the extra n is for his nasty slider https://t.co/mDXsCrDhwH— Matt Kremnitzer (@mattkremnitzer) March 10, 2021
Maybe the second n in Zimmermann does stand for “nasty.” So far, Zimmermann is having arguably one of the best springs of any Orioles pitcher. Against the Red Sox, Zimmermann faced seven batters in relief and retired six of them, four via strikeout. On Tuesday, against a full-strength Twins lineup, Zimmermann did not allow a hit in two scoreless, striking out two while walking one. Opposing batters are 1-for-16 (.063) against him this spring. After Tuesday’s dominant outings by both starter Dean Kremer and Zimmermann, manager Hyde said, “I thought that both guys pounded the strike zone, which is what we’ve been talking about. They both had really good fastballs today, both up to 95-96 mph, averaging around 94, really good life to it.”
Besides the strong performances, there are a few other things in Zimmermann’s favor as he tries to crack the rotation. The local connection helps. He’s available for long relief, as he showed last season. Being a lefty doesn’t hurt, either, with many right-handed rotation candidates he could presumably follow in relief. He still has minor-league options left, and flexibility in the staff is something this team desperately needs.
Yes, Zimmermann remains a little green, and yes, two good spring outings prove exactly nothing. Plus this team is stretching out enough veterans to fill a roster with alone. Still, stuff-, confidence-, and results-wise, Zimmermann is outperforming those more experienced arms, and showing enough that he needs to be in the conversation. Swingman, sixth starter, whatever Hyde wants. But I do hope they’ll make a spot for Bruce Zimmermann on the 26-man roster in 2021.