Tigers' Jordan Zimmermann sees big opportunity to shine in shortened season
Detroit — Right neck strain. Right lat tightness. Right shoulder impingement. Right elbow UCL sprain. Right cervical spasm.
The list of injuries for Tigers pitcher Jordan Zimmermann reads more like a quiz for a medical student on body parts. Since signing a five-year deal for $110 million in 2016, Zimmermann has been trying to get himself right.
Zimmermann, 34, a two-time All-Star during his time with the Washington Nationals, hasn’t had the same level of health, but he’s looking to make the last year of his contract with the Tigers productive. With a 60-game schedule, there are positives and pitfalls — one of which is a smaller window of about 10-12 starts per pitcher in the shortened season.
That could end up being a benefit for the right-hander to help in the rotation when the season begins in three weeks, after the delayed start because of the pandemic.
“Not pitching the first couple of months of the season is probably going to help. I feel good right now and usually the last few years, it’s been around this time where I would start getting tightness,” Zimmerman said via teleconference on Saturday. “I’ve been training, throwing off the mound and throwing extended bullpens and ups and downs, but everything’s checked out great so far. I don’t anticipate anything flaring up this year.”
After spring training in Florida was canceled, Zimmermann went home to Wisconsin and trained four days a week to stay fresh for whenever the season would resume. He said he feels fine physically and his neck and back haven’t given him any issues.
Last season was the most disappointing, with a 1-13 record and a career-worst 6.91 earned-run average in 23 starts. That’s the polar opposite of his 2013 season, when he led the National League with 19 wins and two shutouts.
What he can provide is veteran leadership for a young pitching staff and help out the promising group of young pitchers that are making their way toward the big leagues.
“This guy was one of the best starting pitchers in baseball and he’s still working hard to stay healthy and figure out how to get hitters out. He’s one of the veterans; he means a lot to all these guys in the clubhouse and we’ll see how he does,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said Saturday. “He knows this is his last year with this ballclub, probably — no guarantees on that — but he knows what’s ahead of him. He’s had a heck of a career and he wants to get through this thing with the rest of these guys.”
Part of that mentorship was an offer to the young pitchers, including Alex Faedo, Matt Manning and Casey Mize, to go hunting. It’s not so much the exercise in hunting as it is the bonding and downtime that go with it.
The relationships off the field can be as important as anything and carry over into the clubhouse during the season, which helps knit a team together with those shared experiences. There might need to be some introductory lessons before they get started in Wisconsin.
“I’d like to take (Faedo) up there but I don’t know if he’s ever even held a gun or seen a gun, so it might be a little dangerous,” Zimmermann joked. “If those guys want to come up to Wisconsin and shoot some whitetail, they’re more than welcome.”
The pandemic has changed things for everyone in baseball and simply getting Summer Camp started has been difficult for the players, with rounds of testing and new routines for physical distancing.
That’s not lost on Zimmermann, who worked out at Comerica Park on Saturday, seeing some of the new protocols firsthand.
“This is going to be a strange year and there’s a lot of stuff we have to go through every single day just to get out to the field and take our masks off and play a little bit,” he said. “I’m excited to get out there on the mound every fifth day — and the other four, I guess I’ll be (watching) in the stands. It’s going to be a little different in that aspect, but I’m ready to grind with these guys.”
The young pitching prospects could provide some insurance in case Zimmermann hits another injury snag this season, as they could be ready to step in and take the reins in the rotation. That doesn’t put any additional pressure on Zimmermann, who just wants to stay healthy and finish on a high note.
“I don’t think I really have anything to prove. I just want to finish this last year staying off the DL,” Zimmermann said. “That’s my main goal — to make it through these two months and not have any flare-ups or any issues with my neck, or elbow or back or anything that’s popped up along the way the last four years. For me, the biggest thing is to stay healthy.”
Gardenhire said that Zimmermann still has something left in the tank, and the shorter season, in addition to the veteran pitcher’s experience, could provide some optimism for better production.
Without the same velocity on his fastball, Zimmermann might have to be a bit more crafty.
“He’s working on that sinker that he started throwing and it was doing pretty good,” Gardenhire said. “He’s getting a little late movement on it down in the zone. When you’re not overpowering and your velocity goes down as you get a little bit older, you start to figure out new things.”
Just getting through the season healthy would be at the top of the list.