Zimmermann to get Tommy John, Nationals forced to wait until 2011 to see his next start

Consider the Nationals bubble bursted.

Interim General Manager Mike Rizzo delivered the daunting news today that Jordan Zimmermann will need to have Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. As a result of the surgery, the Nationals top pitching prospect, and hope for the future, will be forced to miss the next 18 months.

While Zimmermann went on the disabled list in mid July, he was first diagnosed with elbow tightness. After getting two opinions from arm specialists, including the noted Dr. James Andrews, the Nationals made the decision today to move towards ligament replacement (Tommy John Surgery).

This is a disappointment for everyone.  Up until the recent winning streak the only bright spots of the Nationals season were Ryan Zimmerman’s 30 game hit streak, and the emergence of Jordan Zimmermann as a future pitching star. Now that certainty is in limbo, as is Zimmermann’s career.

Tommy John has a reputation for being an incredibly successful operation that according to Rizzo has a “85 to 90 percent success rate with pitchers recovering to their pre injury status after (the) surgery.”

So while the good news may be that there is a high chance Zimmermann’s arm may be as lively in two years, the bad news is that he will have to miss TWO years. That takes him from being a 23-year-old top prospect who was just on the verge of figuring out the Major League game  to becoming a 25-year-old out of practice starter trying to relearn how to pitch with a  new arm.

I don’t envy Jordan Zimmermann.

Zimmermann however is no stranger to adversity. The young starter suffered a terrible senior season at Wisconsin Steven’s-Point as he missed most of his spring after getting hit by a line drive during batting practice, and then later that year missed more time after he had his wisdom teeth pulled.

It will be a hard road back for Zimmermann but by no means an impossible one. There have been many success stories involving Tommy John, not only by veterans trying to extend their careers, but also by young pitchers just starting theirs.

Here are some players who received the same surgery at similar points in their careers:


  • Erik Bedard, age 24- Has had stretches of greatness interrupted by injuries (but not to his elbow).  Struck out 221 in 182 innings for the Orioles in 2007.
  • AJ Burnett, age 25- Has a career 3.80 ERA and has averaged 8.3 K/9. Had 231 K’s last year.
  • Josh Johnson, age 23- 11-2 this season with a 2.92 ERA and 129 K’s to 37 BB’s.
  • Matt Morris, age 25- Came back from Tommy John in 2001, won 22 games with a 3.16 ERA.
  • Mariano Rivera, age 22- Became the greatest closer of all time with a dominant cutting fastball. 514 career saves and a 2.27 career ERA.  


Of course for every success story there is a disaster one. Take the former National Shawn Hill or Minnisota Twin Francisco Lirano.

Liriano dazzled Major League baseball in 2006 as he burst on to the scene as a rookie battling teammate Johan Santana for ace status. Liriano went 12-3 in 16 starts, posting a 2.16 ERA. The lefty recorded 144 K’s in 121 innings and walked only 32. However after Tommy John he has seemed to have lost himself. The now 26 year old is 4-11 with a 5.63 ERA and only 106 K’s in 118 IP.

Zimmermann will now have to wait it out, and pay his dues to get back to the Nationals rotation. Hopefully the next time he comes around, we’ll be competing for a playoff spot. 

Notes: Check out this great blog post from Royals left hander Brian Anderson, discussing his Tommy John experience.