If Jordan Zimmermann stays with Nationals, a pivotal year awaits

During the offseason, Jordan ZImmermann might be the hardest member of the Washington Nationals’ roster to track down. He retreats to his hometown of Auburndale, Wis. (population 738), and spends the winter working out, hunting in the central Wisconsin woods with high school and college buddies and generally staying off the radar altogether.

The snow-swept hamlet is as far away from East Coast media buzz as it can get, and yet, through no fault of his own, his name is in the news just about every day.

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Whenever the Nationals are brought up in a trade rumor for, say, Kansas City’s Zack Greinke or Tampa Bay’s Matt Garza, Zimmermann’s name is involved. He’s the young pitcher every team wants back in a trade for one of its established hurlers, the prospect who isn’t too far away from being the same kind of commodity the Nationals are trying to get in a trade.

So why part with him at all? Well, at the moment, the Nationals are reluctant to do just that, to the point where it might take them out of the running for a front-line pitcher sooner than later. They don’t want to deal Zimmermann, a second-round pick in the 2007 draft, because they’ve seen flashes of what he can become: a tough-as-nails right-hander with a mid-90s fastball, two breaking balls and a here-it-is-see-if- you-can-hit-it mentality on the mound. If Stephen Strasburg is the No. 1 starter of their dreams, Zimmermann is the No. 2.

But so far, Zimmermann hasn’t gotten beyond the point of showing flashes of what he can be - though again, much of that isn’t his fault. He struck out 92 batters in 91 1/3 innings in 2009, actually leading the team in strikeouts, before going on the disabled list in July with elbow soreness. That soon turned into a torn ulnar collateral ligament, and Zimmermann missed the rest of 2009, as well as most of 2010, with Tommy John surgery. He surged through his rehab and came back for the last month of 2010 throwing in the mid-90s, displaying more flashes of his great stuff. Zimmermann struck out 27 in 31 innings, allowing a run each in his final two starts.

This year, there shouldn’t be anything standing in the way of Zimmermann pitching a full season in the majors, and the Nationals fully expect him to jump to the next level this year. But there are things in his game that Zimmermann still needs to iron out; he gave up a whopping eight homers in 31 innings last year, and has to improve his changeup to keep left-handers off his fastball.

If he can do that, and the Nationals head into 2012 with a healthy Strasburg-Zimmermann ticket at the top of their rotation, all will be well and optimism should be running as high as it has been since the team was in first place at the All-Star break in 2005. But if Zimmermann doesn’t take the next step this year, there will be plenty of whispers that the Nationals should have dealt him while his potential was still running ahead of his performance.

A Strasburg-Greinke top two might be just as good, if not better, than a Strasburg-Zimmermann pairing; the Nationals would likely also have to give up shortstop Ian Desmond to get Greinke, but they could move Danny Espinosa to short (though they like Desmond better at the position) and plumb their depths in the minors for another second baseman. Though losing Desmond is a big impediment to any deal, losing Zimmermann is just as big a concern, if not a bigger one.

Right now, that’s all based on the belief that Zimmermann will blossom into what he’s supposed to become, and there’s no one in the Nationals organization who doubts the 24-year-old. He’s a fitness freak and one of the hardest workers on the team, and team officials love his makeup on the mound. Consistency is all that’s missing at this point.

If Zimmermann pulls everything together, hanging onto him could go down as one of the better trades general manager Mike Rizzo didn’t make. But if Zimmermann never crosses the threshold from promising to great, the Nationals could be looking back at an opportunity missed. Assuming he stays in Washington, the answers to some of these questions will start to be revealed this year.