Davey Johnson spoke to the D.C. press corps this past Saturday about the team's plans for 25-year-old right-hander Jordan Zimmermann in the second-half of the '11 season, and Johnson talked openly about being unsure how the Washington Nationals would use the '07 2nd Round pick in the coming months since he's on an innings limit in his first full year back following Tommy John surgery in 2009. "[Pitching coach Steve] McCatty's got a plan for [Zimmermann] to kind of stretch him out that will be good for him," Johnson said, "and not as bad for the team, trying to get him at least to where we can expand the roster."
"I've heard the plan and I'm not that comfortable with it," Johnson continued, "so we'll have the break to discuss that formula. I'm not quite set on how that goes down. I'll probably need some medical opinions and all this other stuff..."
MLB.com's Bill Ladson (@washingnats) wrote on Twitter on June 6th that, "#Nats RHP Jordan Zimmermann will become the fifth starter in the rotation after the All-Star break. He has a limit of 160 innings." Former DC GM Jim Bowden (JimBowdenESPNxm) tweeted the day after Johnson's comments that the, "Nats plan to shut down Jordan Zimmermann in [September]."
The only question in Johnson's mind, as he explained, was how the Nats would get Zimmermann to 160.0 innings. "If there's off days and I don't need another starter, then I can kinda understand, but if I've got to piece another starter in there to push him back further to get him to the expanded roster, I haven't looked at that, but that would be an issue with me."
The veteran of 13 seasons on the field and 15 on the bench in the majors discussed having dealt with a similar situation (though not a hard innings-limit) when he managed the Dodgers in 1999 and 2000. "I had a pitcher in LA, Darren Dreifort," Johnson said, "who had no. 1 or no.2 stuff, but he had a very loose shoulder after he threw about 160.0 innings, just got so loose he couldn't throw. I kept him [as a] fifth starter, monitored him all year long, and the second year, I bypassed him and everything. I got him to 200.0 innings, but it was a chore, and the Dodgers gave him $55 million, and then he was a no.1 or 2 and now you can't."
Eno Sarris at Fangraphs.com discussed this weekend's quotes from the Nationals' manager today in an article entitled, "Not About Jordan Zimmermann & Innings Limits", which, as the title suggests was not so much about Zimmermann in particular, but about the relationship between the clubhouse and front office and the different goals, duties and motivations which guide the decision-making process at each level of an organization:
"If [a manager is] supposed to know his players on an every-day basis and win games from the dugout, he’s supposed to look at his healthy ace and want him on the mound as much as possible. And the pitching coach is supposed to find a way to keep his pitchers healthy. And the general manager is supposed to groom a sustainable contender of a roster. Everyone has their roles."
As Mr. Sarris points out, however, in Zimmermann's "particular case," and likely in Stephen Strasburg's next season, "... it seems that their mandates have found conflict."
"[Zimmermann']s obviously pitched a lot better than a fifth starter," Johnson told reporters, indirectly addressing the conflict the Fangraphs.com writer discussed, "So, if we're trying to win... I mean, but don't get me started on that whole scenario, but you can figure it out. I don't know if this is a medical decision. That he needs extra rest, or if we're going to shut him down at 160.0 innings, is it better to be regular and then shut [down]? So, there's all kinds of things, thought processes that [go] into it. It's probably made above me by smart doctors, but from a baseball standpoint, I want to win. I'm thinking of winning."
"So, you really want to be careful with guys coming back from injury," Johnson said, "Maybe instead of Strasburg and [Zimmermann] being one and two, they're four and five. I'd hate to think that, but I don't know." If that is the case, and it's necessary to protect the recovering pitchers and use Zimmermann and Strasburg on a limited basis, the Nationals have big decisions to make this winter.
Do they attempt another run at the free agent market for this year's top starters, attempt another trade like the one they explored with Zack Greinke, sign Jason Marquis, bring back Livan Hernandez and hope that the same rotation and the pitching in the system are enough to allow them to compete in what is sure to once again be a tough division? A staff built around Strasburg and Zimmermann was the plan, after Zimmermann's injury and before Strasburg's. Had Strasburg not been injured, the two would likely sit atop the Nationals' rotation right now. If Strasburg were pitching, a .500 team without him might now be even closer to contention and the decision what to do with Zimmermann would only be more difficult.