#46 -- The 50 Greatest Rangers of All Time -- Jeff Zimmerman

#46 on the list of the greatest Rangers of all time is a player that I imagine everyone here is familiar with.  In a lot of ways, he's an example of the opposite Oddibe McDowell and the syndrome he represents.  While McDowell was a heavily hyped first round pick, this player was an undrafted free agent, plucked out of the independent leagues.  While McDowell was 22 when he broke in, this player was 26 years old when he made the majors, and didn't even play in pro ball until age 24.  While McDowell was a guy on the top of all the prospect lists, this player barely cracked the Rangers' top 10 prospects list in BA the one year he made the list, and that was more a testament to the weakness of the Rangers system (those ahead of him included Kelly Dransfeldt, Ryan Glynn, Shawn Gallagher, and Mike Zywica).  While McDowell was a player for whom stardom was expected, for #46, just making a major league roster was something of an upset.

And yet, they had some similarities, as well.  Like McDowell, this player was a star performer on his country's national team, although he didn't play in the Olympics.  Like McDowell, this player made the majors just a year after joining the organization.  And like McDowell, after a bright start, this player's career flamed out much too quickly.

As you've probably guessed by now, #46 on the list of the greatest Rangers of all time is pitcher Jeff Zimmerman.

Zimmerman was about as unlikely a candidate for the majors as you could run across.  Born in British Columbia, Zimmerman attended Simon Fraser University in B.C. and Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, but was undrafted coming out of college.  After pitching for the Canadian National Baseball Team from 1993 through 1995, he ended up pitching in the independent Northern League in 1997, resulting in him being signed as an amateur free agent by the Rangers in January of 1998, at the age of 25.

Even given Zimmerman's advanced age, his 1998 minor league season was remarkable.  He started off the year with Charlotte in the high-A Florida State League, pitching out of the bullpen, and dominated immediately, striking out 14 hitters and walking just 1 in 14 1/3 IP, and earning a promotion to AA after just 14 games with a 1.26 ERA.  

The Texas League was no better equipped to solve Zimmerman than the FSL was.  Pitching in 41 games out of the pen for Tulsa, and sharing closing duties with submarining lefty Mike Venafro, Zimmerman struck out 67 batters in just 62 2/3 innings, walking 20 and allowing just 38 hits while posting an incredible 1.29 ERA for the season.  Even though Zimmerman was old for AA, a 1.29 ERA is a 1.29 ERA, and Zimmerman was viewed as a dark-horse candidate for the Rangers bullpen coming into the 1999 season.

Although the Rangers won the A.L. West in 1998, their pitching staff, and the bullpen in particular, was in a state of disarray.  The 5.00 team ERA was 12th in the American League, and outside of closer John Wetteland, who had posted an ERA barely above 2.00 on the season, the pen consisted mainly of question marks or bad known quantities.  Other than Wetteland, the right side of the Ranger pen in 1998 had been manned by Danny Patterson, who regressed from a solid rookie campaign the year before; Tim Crabtree, a hard-throwing journeyman the Rangers had picked up from the Blue Jays in exchange for the other Kevin Brown; Al Levine, another journeyman whom the ChiSox had been willing to part with to get the post-prospect ashes that remained of Benji Gil's career after the 1996 season; and veteran Xavier Hernandez, who signed with the Orioles after the 1998 season.  

Sifting through the wreckage, the Rangers knew that they needed to upgrade the pen coming into the 1999 season, but their only major offseason additions - Mike Morgan and Mark Clark, names that should strike fear in the heart of Rangers fans - were intended to beef up the rotation.  Any upgrades to the bullpen would have to come internally.

Remarkably, the bullpen ended up not only upgraded - it was one of the best in baseball in 1999, and the best reliever in the best bullpen in baseball was none other than Jeff Zimmerman.

Zimmerman didn't make the major league team out of spring training, but got called up barely a week into the season, making his major league debut on April 13, 1999, at the Kingdome.  The Rangers had jumped all over Mariners starter Ken Cloude, knocking him out in the 2nd inning, and had continued to thrash reliever Mac Suzuki, jumping out to a 13-0 lead after just three innings.  In the bottom of the 7th, starter Mike Morgan began running out of gas, and manager Johnny Oates saw the opportunity to get the rookie's feet wet in a blowout.  Zimmerman came in with a 15-5 lead, and pitched marvelously, striking out 4 batters and giving up just one hit in 1 2/3 innings before giving way to Danny Patterson in the 9th.

Encouraged by what he saw - and knowing that his available bullpen options were pretty limited - Oates called on Zimmerman again the following day, this time in a much more critical situation.  Despite being staked to a 3-1 advantage, starter John Burkett couldn't hold the lead, and with one out in the bottom of the fifth, with the Mariners having just re-taken a 4-3 lead, Oates pulled Burkett and gave Zimmerman the ball, looking to him to put out the fire.

Zimmerman responded by retiring 8 consecutive batters, shutting down the potent Mariners offense and giving the Rangers the chance to come back and re-take the lead, ultimately winning 9-6 and giving Jeff Zimmerman his first major league victory.  With strong performances in back-to-back games to start of his career, the Rangers got their first hint of what was to come that season.

Zimmerman's repertoire was really quite straightforward...while he toyed with incorporating a changeup at times, he was basically a two pitch pitcher.  He had a decent, but not great, fastball that he could spot pretty well.  But Zimmerman's out pitch, his bread-and-butter, was a vicious biting slider.  When Zimmerman was on and his slider was working, righthanders found that slider almost unhittable.

Zimmerman continued to dominate American League hitters through the spring, not giving up a run until his seventh major league appearance, and giving up only two runs in his first 16 games.  He didn't have his first bad outing until May 22, when, coming into the game with an 0.61 ERA, he got pecked to death by the Baltimore Orioles.  Entering in the bottom of the 7th at Camden Yards, in relief of Aaron Sele, Zimmerman finally appeared mortal, giving up 3 runs on four singles and a walk in 1 1/3 innings.  Oates finally pulled Zimmerman, bringing in Crabtree in relief, and Zim would have been on the hook for the loss had Juan Gonzalez not come through with a three run homer in the top of the 9th to lead Texas to a come-from-behind, 8-7 victory.

Zimmerman's ERA was still sitting at just 1.47 after that game, but for Rangers fans, the Oriole outburst seemed to be a harbinger of doom.  I thought back on Gary Mielke in 1989, Gerald Alexander in 1991, even Dave Hostetler...guys who came out of nowhere, looked like they might be something special for a brief while, and then came crashing back down to reality.  Zimmerman had a nice run, but the Orioles getting to him showed that the league was catching up, and it was just a matter of time before he would be consigned to picking up garbage innings in blowouts.

Shows you what I know...after that May 22 outing, Jeff Zimmerman didn't allow another run for ten weeks.  It wasn't until August 2, with the Rangers 21 games over .500 on the year, with a double-digit lead on the rest of the A.L. West and the division title all but wrapped up - that Zimmerman gave up another run that year.  

And one of the biggest factors in the Rangers having run away with the division by the beginning of August was the performance of the bullpen, led by Zimmerman, who had an ERA of 0.00 for the months of June and July, and who had solidified himself as one of the best setup men in baseball that year.  The bullpen as a whole had, incredibly, gone from a weakness to a strength.  Holdovers Wetteland, Patterson and Crabtree combined with rookies Venafro and Zimmerman and veteran lefty Mike Munoz, who had been picked up as a minor league free agent, to give the Rangers one of the strongest bullpens in baseball in the summer of 1999, time and again bailing out a rotation that had two decent starters in Rick Helling and Aaron Sele, and little else.

Zimmerman was even named to the All-Star Game...rare for a non-closing reliever, and even rarer for a rookie reliever.  Zimmerman, along with penmate John Wetteland, represented the Rangers well, combining for 2 shutout innings in a 2-0 American League victory.  

The Rangers rode Zimmerman hard that summer, and as the season wound down, he appeared to wear out.  After taking an 0.75 ERA into the month of August, Zimmerman posted a 4.58 ERA in August and a 7.54 ERA in September, and allowed more homers in the month of September - 5 - than he had all season, including a stretch where he allowed a homer in three consecutive appearances in late September.

Still, Zimmerman ended the year with an extremely impressive line, posting a 2.36 ERA and a 212 ERA+ in 87 2/3 innings and a WARP3 of 5.8.  He had the 4th highest VORP of all rookie pitchers in baseball, trailing only Freddy Garcia, Tim Hudson, and John Halama, although he didn't factor in the ROY balloting.

While Zimmerman was a major factor in the Rangers winning a franchise-record 95 games and finishing 8 games up on the Oakland A's, there was nothing he could do to help the Rangers put runs on the board against the Yankees in the playoffs.  Zimmerman appeared just once in the ALDS, in the final game, and threw a shutout inning against New York, but once again, the Rangers couldn't get runs on the board, and were swept by the Yankees.

After the highs of 1999, 2000 was a letdown, both for the Rangers and for Zimmerman.  There was a tremendous amount of turnover after the season, as Juan Gonzalez was sent to Detroit in the infamous Justin Thompson deal, Aaron Sele and Todd Zeile left as free agents, Kenny Rogers and Darren Oliver were signed as free agents, and David Segui was acquired for Lee Stevens.  The parts didn't mesh, however, and the Rangers suffered some bad luck.  Ruben Mateo, the stud outfield prospect expected to fill Juan Gonzalez's shoes, suffered an ugly broken femur running out a ground ball that ended his season.  Justin Thompson, who was supposed to be the #1 starter the Rangers were looking for, never pitched an inning for them that year.  Darren Oliver was a bust.  Mike Lamb struggled to replace Todd Zeile.

Perhaps most damaging, though, was that the bullpen that had carried the Rangers in the 1999 season couldn't come close to repeating its performance.  Munoz was injured, and Wetteland, Crabtree, Venafro and Zimmerman all saw their ERAs increase.  Francisco Cordero, the closer prospect who came over in the Juan Gonzalez trade, struggled as well, and only two relievers - Venafro and Wetteland - posted an ERA below 5 on the season.  What had been a huge advantage for the Rangers in 1999 had turned into a significant weakness.

Zimmerman was a major factor in the collapse of the pen.  The late season struggles of 1999 carried over into 2000.  In just his second appearance of the 2000 season, Zimmerman came into a game against Chicago in the top of the 9th, protecting a 7-7 tie.  He gave up a leadoff homer to Chris Singleton, then loaded up the bases before being pulled with two outs for Francisco Cordero, who allowed a double, wild pitch, walk and single to allow all the inherited runs to score.  

The pitcher who went most of the year in 1999 without seeing his ERA go above 2.00 now had an ERA of 13.50 in the first week of the season, and it wouldn't drop below 5.13 for the rest of the year.  Zimmerman struggled for most of the first half of the year, with his ERA in late June touching 7.04, before settling back down and having a respectable second half of the season, finishing the year with a 5.30 ERA, good for a 97 ERA+, while the Rangers ended up the year in last place.

Which gets us to the 2001 season...a nightmare year.  There will be other players on the top 50 list that were here in 2001, and we can dwell on the trials and tribulations of the 2001 season with them.  Suffice it to say, almost everything that could go wrong during the 2001 season, went wrong.

Except as it pertained to Jeff Zimmerman.  As is often the case with relievers, the magic that had disappeared so suddenly re-appeared just as quickly.  Zimmerman started the year in a middle relief role, with Tim Crabtree taking over as closer from John Wetteland, who retired after the 2000 season.  Crabtree was awful, then got hurt, which opened the door for Jeff Zimmerman to take over the closer's role.

And when Zimmerman was on the mound, it was like it was 1999 all over again.  The slider was biting once more.  Hitters were flailing.  And while the Rangers weren't winning nearly as much as they did then - Zim only had 4 wins and 28 saves on the season, a reflection on how poorly the team played - Jeff Zimmerman was not to blame.  In a season where the Rangers' pitching staff was a disaster, where the team started the year horribly and became one of the laughingstocks of the American League, Jeff Zimmerman was one of the very few bright spots.

And unlike in 1999, Zimmerman only got stronger as the year went on.  After a solid, if not spectacular, first half of the season, Zimmerman allowed just three runs from July 4 through the end of the year, on home runs by Damian Easley, Jim Thome, and Luis Alicea.  Zimmerman finished up the year with a 2.40 ERA, a 187 ERA+ and a WARP3 of 6.4.

Arbitration-eligible for the first time that offseason, newly anointed as the Rangers closer, Zimmerman and the Rangers ended up agreeing before the season to a three year contract worth around $10 million, covering the 2002 through 2004 seasons.  And, incredibly, Jeff Zimmerman hasn't pitched a single inning in the majors since signing that deal.

Early in spring training of 2002, Zimmerman reported elbow stiffness.  It was first thought to be minor, then attributed to an injection done on the elbow in conjunction with the physical Zimmerman underwent before inking his contract.  It was thought he'd be back in April, then by the end of May.  Finally, it was determined that Zimmerman needed Tommy John surgery...the vicious slider that Zimmerman threw put so much torque on the elbow ligaments that it apparently ended up tearing them.  But Zimmerman was expected to be back by the 2003 season.

2002 came and went, but Zimmerman was still having problems.  Tommy John surgery is nowadays considered a walk in the park, a procedure everyone comes back from, but Zimmerman proved to be the exception that proves the rule.  Still having problems, Zimmerman ended up having two more elbow surgeries, and his continuing attempts to make it back to the majors have fallen short.

So once again, we have a player who showed sparks of brilliance, only to have his career cut short by injury.  Zimmerman didn't even spend three full years in the major leagues, but he did play a major role on the best Rangers team ever, and he had two great seasons and one okay season out of the Ranger bullpen.  

And that's good enough to get him on my list, as the 46th greatest Ranger of all time.

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