Without much to look forward to this year in terms of the major league club, which is on its way to one of the worst seasons in baseball history, the Orioles' focus will shift toward the next generation of players they hope will help reverse that before long.
The regular "One for the Future" feature, which began in mid-July, will highlight an Orioles minor leaguer who is on the radar for either prospect status, performance or pedigree.
Next, a look at left-hander Bruce Zimmermann, who the Orioles acquired in a six-player trade from the Atlanta Braves on July 31.
A local product who went to Towson University after graduating from Loyola Blakefield in 2013, Zimmermann pitched as a starter and reliever for the Tigers before transferring to Division II Mount Olive (N.C.) and seeing his career take off. He had a 3.19 ERA and a 3.18 ERA over 15 starts in each of his two near-identical seasons, and the Braves used their fifth-round pick on Zimmermann last summer.
He gave a glimpse of what he’d grown into in North Carolina in his professional debut last summer for High-A Danville, striking out 28.8 percent of the batters he faced (28 of 97) with a 3.09 ERA in 23 1/3 innings.
Zimmermann got a starting assignment for Low-A Rome this season in the Braves’ organization and earned South Atlantic League All-Star honors while going 7-3 with a 2.76 ERA, a 29 percent strikeout rate and a 1.09 WHIP. The Braves jumped him over the Carolina League entirely to bump him to Double-A Mississippi, where he didn’t miss a beat. In six starts, Zimmermann had a 3.14 ERA, and though his walk rate spiked a bit and he had a lower strikeout rate, that didn’t stop the Orioles from including him in the four-player package for Kevin Gausman and Darren O’Day.
He’s been as-advertised since coming to the Orioles. He made two starts and allowed three runs (two earned) with seven strikeouts and 11 runners allowed before his home debut Thursday, which came in front of scores of friends and family. Zimmermann allowed a run on three hits with five strikeouts in a 3-1 win over Richmond.
Zimmermann’s outing Thursday paints an intriguing picture of what he could be going forward, even if it’s not the most exciting package. The caveat was that Richmond stacked eight right-handed batters against him, which basically cut off half his arsenal but also showed the kinds of challenges he’ll face at higher levels — and how he can effectively attack them.
His fastball was regularly in the 88-90 mph range, and he located well armside for strikes and weak contact. He’d touch 91-92 mph late and while ahead in counts, and though those pitches didn’t have the same life, it still jumped on hitters from his three-quarters delivery. His changeup plays off that pitch phenomenally, sitting in the 81-84 mph range with identical arm speed. He got three swinging strikeouts and five swinging strikes on the pitch, and plenty of weak contact.
That’s how he’ll best attack a right-handed lineup, which is what he’ll be faced with more often than not in a game that’s more and more right-hand dominant with each passing year. The only left-handed batter he faced Thursday had a pair of singles off him, the only hits he allowed other than a leadoff home run to open the second inning.
His background suggests that’s not how it goes typically, with left-handers hitting .198 with just six extra-base hits and 58 strikeouts against 15 walks in 185 plate appearances against him entering Thursday.
His breaking ball, which he threw sparingly Thursday, would be a weapon against left-handers should he see more in a game. But it could also be a weapon against right-handers, burying it on the back foot or stealing strikes on the outside edge.
The total package is that of a back-end starter at the absolute best, with some lefty-on-lefty potential out of the bullpen on the downside. But unlike other Orioles pitching prospects, such as Keegan Akin, who could see their stuff tick up out of the bullpen, it’s unclear what kind of bump Zimmermann could experience from that.
A more apt comparison in the system might be an older version of Alex Wells, another lefty without high-end velocity but some deception and an ability to miss bats with a changeup who would have the most opportunity to deliver value as a starter.