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Great Deal Riding On Shoulders Of 21 Year Old

[January 2nd] -- It doesn't happen often, that's for sure. A player is chosen in the amateur draft in June, and he's starting in the major leagues just three months later. Robin Yount did it in 1974, and Ryan Zimmerman did it last season. I can't think of a single player who was able to pull it off between the two of them, can you?. Usually, the drafting team [like the Brewers] was so bad that they earned one of the top four or five picks in the draft, and playing them everyday at the major league level didn't harm the team's chance of winning. But the Nationals were different last season. When Zimmerman was chosen with the 4th pick in the 2005 amateur draft, the Nats were in first place and would stay there until well after the all-star break. Vinny Castilla was a classy veteran with a two year contract, so the Nationals were in no hurry to rush Zimmerman to the big leagues.

My, how things can change in just three months.

Jim Bowden took the Nationals' general manager's position not because of the talent level in the minor leagues, but rather in spite of it. Bowden knew that there was only a small handful of players capable of playing in the major leagues one day, and most all of them were at the class 'A' level. With the team's number four pick, he wanted to sign a player who was capable of joining the big club within two years.

There were many other players with a much stronger "upside" when the team drafted, but there was no player more polished, more ready to become a major leaguer than the Virginia Beach native.

Ryan Zimmerman was one of the best known athletes to come out of southern Virginia in many years. He chose to play college baseball rather than ride the buses of the minor leagues, and played for the Cavaliers for three seasons. His debut in 2003 was inauspicious. Although he did hit .308, he didn't hit a homer in 221 at-bats and had a [for the college level] poor .340 on base percentage and .376 slugging mark. 2004 saw his average rise to .361, but he only hit a single homer in 249 at-bats. His on-base percent jumped to .395. His power finally began to blossom last season as the youngster hit six home runs and drove in 59 runs while batting .393. His OBP, the result of many more walks, was a remarkable .469. He was projected as a certain first round pick by virtually all of the MLB scouts.

The rap on Zimmerman [if you can call it a rap] was that his upside was limited. True, he would be able to make a major league roster very quickly, perhaps within a year, but he'd never grow and mature into a player dissimilar from the one drafted [consider David Ortiz of the Red Sox, who is nothing like the thin, scrawny kid I saw play for 'AAA' Salt Lake City several years ago]. Zimmerman, it was thought, would play fifteen seasons in the majors, and never stray very much from a .285 - 20 - 85 season during his career. Because most teams draft on potential and not draft-day ability, Zimmerman wasn't terribly high on any other team's wish list come draft day. The Nats quickly grabbed him.

After taking a week off to be with family, Zimmerman reported to low class 'A' Savannah on a Friday night and promptly went 0-5 with three strikeouts. In the next three games with the Sand Gnats, however, he went 8-12 with 2 homers and 6 RBI's. Zimmerman finished his class 'A' stint with a .471 batting average. He was starting at third for the Harrisburg Senators just a week after making his professional debut.

He started off sizzling for the Senators, getting his average as high as .417, but after two weeks, pitchers began to find his "holes," and his average plummeted to .209 by mid-July. I was worried. Zimmerman wasn't. He soon regained his stroke, and he owned Eastern League pitchers for the remainder of the season. In 63 games, Zimmerman hit .326 with 9 homers and 32 RBI's. He had a good .371 obp and a strong .454 slugging average. He was the first player called up in September when the roster expanded.

Initially, the kid didn't see much playing time. Manager Frank Robinson, ever loyal to his veteran players, allowed Vinny Castilla to man third base even though his knees and his advancing years made him of little value to the team. General Manager Jim Bowden must have had a "chat" with Robinson, though, as Zimmerman started most of the games during the season's final couple of weeks. In 58 at-bats, Zimmerman hit .397 [dropping below .400 on his last at-bat of the season] with six rbi's. Although he wasn't credited with a home run, he pulled a shot down the left field line against the Mets that missed being a home run by the width of sheet of paper. He showed plenty of power, however. Of his 23 hits, 10 of them were doubles. Four of those doubles came within three feet or less of being home runs. There is no question that he has more than enough power to play third base in the big leagues.

Bowden has said from the day Zimmerman was drafted that his defense was ready for the big leagues. In fourteen games at third, he turned five double plays and didn't commit an error. His one-game experiment at short, however, netted two errors and likely a promise from upper management that they'd never do that to him again. He has good range and a great arm, but his best defensive asset is his "baseball smarts," the ability and presence to play in the right position to optimize his talents.

Zimmerman might win the Rookie-Of-The-Year award and hit .300 - 25 - 100; he's got that kind of talent. It's just as possible, however, that after a .188 April and a .202 May, he'll find himself in New Orleans to "work things out." Damian Jackson was signed to be just that kind of insurance policy for the team. There is little doubt that the team's returning players will be much better offensively this season because the chance of an entire team having their career worst season two years in a row is unthinkable. If Zimmerman adds a .280-20-80 season to the group, the team could win 85 games. But if he's not the answer at third, if Damian Jackson has to be "the man" at third base, it will be a long, long [long] season in Washington.

Ryan Zimmerman is only 21. I'll be about 70 when the kid finally hangs up his spikes. He's young and he's raw. But man, is he good. There is going to be some rough road ahead for the kid. Chipper Jones was his age when he debuted for the Braves, and it wasn't very pretty early on for young Chipper. I hope that the pressure is lessoned on Zimmerman by his teammates. If Jose Vidro, Jose Guillen and Nick Johnson do what they're supposed to do [hit], then the Nationals can carry an erratic youngster at third.

If the offense repeats it's so-so season of last year, though, Zimmerman might press and develop bad habits that could take years to correct.

We're not asking you do be superman, Ryan. We just want you to have fun playing the game of baseball at the major league level, something that all of us wanted to be able to do but were not born with the gifts you possess. Good luck, big guy. We're rooting for you.

Oh, and tell Guzman to lose the doo-rag, will ya?

It is pretty rare, isn't it?

I've always been impressed by Alex Fernandez, who in 1990 was the fourth pick of the June draft and then ended up making 13 starts for the White Sox before the season was over. He debuted on August 2, 1990.

John Olerud was picked in the third round by the Blue Jays in June 1989 and made 8 late-season ABs for them that season (and was pretty much a regular from there). I can't recall if he completely skipped the minors or not, but he was up the same season.

Pete Incaviglia did skip the minors, but he didn't debut until the spring of '86, despite being drafted in June 1985.

Joey Devine of the Braves went from this past year's draft to the majors a couple months later, too, although he was a last man in the bullpen for the Braves.

That's all I can recall off the top of my head. It's rare.
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