Silent bulldog of Nats' rotation

Silent bulldog of Nats' rotation
February 28, 2012, 1:54 pm
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VIERA, Fla. -- For all the attention lavished upon Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and Chien-Ming Wang over the winter and so far this spring, there's one projected member of the Nationals rotation who always seems to get lost in the shuffle.

Which is a real shame, because Jordan Zimmermann might very well prove to have the best 2012 of any of them.

Now a full 2 12 years removed from Tommy John surgery, Zimmermann is finally free to pitch without any shackles holding him back. The Nationals will monitor him just like they would any young starter, but they fully expect him to approach (if not surpass) 200 innings this season and become a stalwart in one of baseball's best rotations.

"He's very focused," manager Davey Johnson said. "But he's in a good frame of mind. Strong as a bull."

Zimmermann doesn't draw as much attention as his rotation mates in part because of his low-key personality. He's a man of very few words, though he's perhaps opening up a little bit with experience. "I'm actually getting a couple sentences per conversation out of him," Johnson cracked last week.

On the mound, Zimmermann is as tough as they get, a steely-eyed workhorse who seems to bring the same amount of intensity to every pitch he throws.

Looking back, it's funny to think how unheralded he was coming out of tiny Wisconsin-Stevens Point, a Division III program.

Mike Rizzo yesterday was recalling how Zimmermann was scouted in 2007. A host of Nationals front-office members, led by then-GM Jim Bowden, saw Zimmermann pitch in a Florida tournament and came away only moderately interested in the right-hander. Rizzo, though, flew to Wisconsin to watch him pitch in the Division III playoffs, on the advice of Upper Midwest area scout Steve Arnieri, who loved both Zimmermann's ability and competitive fire.

Zimmermann at the time was pitching with his jaw wired shut, having recently been struck in the face by a line drive while throwing batting practice. He proceeded to mow down the competition, and Rizzo (who was then assistant GM and in charge of scouting and player development) was immediately sold on him.

Rizzo, though, still had to convince the rest of the Nationals' front office that Zimmermann was the real deal. When the scouting department sat down to create their draft board, Zimmermann was initially ranked about 75th out of 90 potential picks. Rizzo insisted he be bumped all the way up to the top 15, leaving other members of the organization aghast and leading to a heated argument in the room.

Eventually, Bowden stepped in and sided with Rizzo, saying the latter had been hired to run the Nationals' draft room and thus got to have final say on these matters. Even so, Rizzo had to sit back and let his cohorts select three other players in the first and supplemental rounds of the draft: Ross Detwiler (sixth overall), Josh Smoker (31st) and Michael Burgess (49th).

Finally, with the 67th overall pick, the Nationals took Zimmermann. All he's done since is justify Rizzo's scouting eye and become one of the better young pitchers in the game.

Even having missed 13 months while recovering from his surgery, Zimmermann has still managed to produce the sixth-highest WAR among all players taken in the 2007 draft, trailing only David Price, Mike Stanton, Matt Wieters, Jason Heyward and Madison Bumgarner.

And now that he's 100 percent healthy and cleared to pitch a full season with no restrictions, don't be surprised if Zimmermann takes another step forward and starts garnering some legitimate attention.

Even if he's not exactly the type who seeks it.