Before going forward, a caveat: It’s possible orthopedist James Andrews will take a look at the MRI of Washington Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann’s right elbow, the one that acting general manager Mike Rizzo said showed “concerning facts,” and find nothing to suggest the promising right-hander’s career arc is about to smack into a brick wall.
Zimmermann pitched in a rehab start at Class A Potomac last week with whatever’s going on in his elbow, striking out six in 3 1/3 innings. Before that, he was able to do some throwing while on the disabled list, and the Nationals have maintained all along that if they had been in a pennant race instead of last place when the rookie went on the disabled list July 22, he would have pitched through it.
But all that said, put together three key phrases - Dr. James Andrews, right elbow and “concerning facts.”
How are you feeling now?
Even if it doesn’t turn out to be a serious injury - you know, like the kind Tommy John would know something about - Zimmermann’s right elbow discomfort is the most, well, discomforting thing going on with the Nationals this side of San Diego.
Consider this: Of the stable of young pitchers the Nationals are counting on to fill out their rotation someday - probably someday soon - Zimmermann and John Lannan were the only ones remaining from the team’s five-man rotation that began the year. Scott Olsen succumbed to season-ending shoulder surgery, Shairon Martis is at Class AAA Syracuse nursing a 5.45 ERA after a promising start and Daniel Cabrera was Daniel Cabrera.
It’s Zimmermann who entered the year ranked by Baseball America as the 41st-best prospect in the game and the best in the Nationals’ system. It’s Zimmermann whom scouts consistently praise as having the best stuff of all the young Washington arms, and it’s Zimmermann who was virtually untouchable in trade talks last month.
If Andrews finds anything in Zimmermann’s shoulder that would constitute major surgery, it’s not just a blow to the 23-year-old’s future. It’s a crippling shot to the plan the Nationals are using to construct a winner.
For most of this season, Lannan has shown the potential to be more of a front-line starter than scouts regard him to be, but Zimmermann is the only other Nationals pitcher who has displayed shutdown potential on anything more than a fleeting basis. His mid-90s fastball is augmented by a sharp curveball, solid slider and developing change-up. And like Lannan, he has the steely makeup the Nationals love in their pitching prospects.
Quite simply, having to wait on Zimmermann would be damaging to the Nationals’ progress. On a short-term basis, it remains to be seen what the injury could do to the team’s other effort to acquire a future ace.
The deadline to sign Stephen Strasburg is a week from Monday, and a major injury to Zimmermann would tint those negotiations. Strasburg’s advisor, Scott Boras, could argue for a higher premium to land the kind of cornerstone arm Strasburg is predicted to be; the Nationals would point to Zimmermann as a classic example of why you don’t overpay for young pitching. It’s not likely to be a major talking point, but at this late stage, any edge counts.
And let’s say Zimmermann doesn’t need surgery, only rest and rehab. Is there any reason - or time - to bring him back this season?
The Nationals should know more early this week. But as soon as Rizzo mentioned “concerning facts,” they had every reason to be concerned about their prized prospect and their plan.