In Their Footsteps: The right-handed set-up man

Jeff Zimmerman was 28 years old and had already made a Major League All-Star Game appearance by time he’d earned as much money as a baseball player as Fabio Castillo was paid at age 16 to sign.  There is virtually nothing in common between the two righthanders, but then again very few professional athletes have a story even remotely like Zimmerman’s.

The Canadian native had pitched for Treasure Valley Community College (Oregon) in 1990 and Indian Hills Community College (Iowa) in 1991 before transferring to TCU, where he starred for two seasons, winning eight of 11 decisions – with his only three losses remarkably coming against teams (Texas, Texas A&M, and Arizona State) that were ranked number one in the nation at the time.  Still, the senior went unchosen through all 91 rounds of the 1993 draft.

After spending the summer pitching for the Canadian National Team, Zimmerman decided in 1994 to join the French National Baseball League, where he played for the Montpellier Barracudas in a league that he would later describe as junior college level.  It was in France that he learned the slider – that slider – that certainly would have made him a drafted minor leaguer had he featured it at TCU.  

After one year in France, Zimmerman rejoined Team Canada but, when the squad failed to qualify for the 1996 Atlanta Games, he returned to school, earning his M.B.A. at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.  A four-month search for a corporate job finally resulted in an invitation to interview with Fidelity Investments in Boston but, not prepared to enter a world that would have summarily slammed the door on his baseball career once and for all, Zimmerman declined the interview.  

Zimmerman found a job with the Winnipeg Goldeyes of the independent Northern League in 1997, going 9-2 with a league-leading 2.82 ERA, holding opponents to a .217 average and striking out an extraordinary 140 hitters in 118 innings.  The 25-year-old then sent out perhaps the most famous fax in Metroplex sports history, asking all 30 big league franchises for a chance.  Only one responded.

The Rangers purchased Zimmerman from the Goldeyes on January 6, 1998.  As the story goes, the purchase price was two dozen baseballs, and Zimmerman’s signing bonus was a plane ticket.  To Zimmerman, of course, it was as valuable as a winning lottery ticket.

“It was actually a difficult decision to sign Zim,” says Brewers director of player development Reid Nichols, who was then in the same position for the Rangers.  “We were limited on visas because our Latin American program needed them, and this was a 25-year-old pitcher.  I decided to go ahead and sign him, but all he got was an opportunity.”

It wouldn’t take long for Zimmerman to make the move look genius.  Thirteen months after taking a flier on the righthander, the Rangers were honoring him as their 1998 Nolan Ryan Minor League Pitcher of the Year.  He’d gone 5-2, 1.28 between High A Charlotte and AA Tulsa, with 81 strikeouts and 21 walks in 77.1 innings and an opponents’ batting average of .175, and followed it with a 1.73 ERA in the Arizona Fall League.  

Invited to his first big league spring training in 1999, Zimmerman didn’t win a job in camp with Texas, set to defend its second division title in three years, but eight days into the season (after 3.2 hitless AAA innings) he was summoned from Oklahoma to give the big league bullpen a boost.  What followed was perhaps the greatest season a Rangers middle reliever has ever had.

Relievers who don’t save games aren’t supposed to make All-Star teams, let alone those who are Major League rookies, but Zimmerman’s selection to the American League squad was no gimmick.  At the Break, the 26-year-old was 8-0 with an ERA of 0.86, setting up closer John Wetteland.  Zimmerman had permitted only 18 hits (.106 opponents’ average) in 52.1 innings, striking out 46 while issuing only 11 walks.  He would pitch a scoreless seventh in the American League’s 4-1 All-Star Game win in Fenway Park.  

Zimmerman’s ERA sat at 1.16 with five weeks to go in 1999, before a few rough outings resulted in a season-ending ERA of 2.36.  He held the opposition to a .166 average for the year, the best mark of any American League reliever, and had a team-record 26 consecutive scoreless appearances (29 innings, nine hits) at one point, which encompassed a scoreless June and July.  He pitched once in the Yankees’ three-game playoff sweep of the Rangers, striking out one in a scoreless inning of work.

After a disappointing sophomore season (5.30 ERA, .286 opponents’ average), Zimmerman took over for Tim Crabtree as Wetteland’s ninth-inning successor six weeks into the 2001 season and was brilliant, posting a 2.40 ERA, saving 28 games in 31 chances, holding hitters to a .192 average, and fanning 72 batters in 71.1 innings while issuing only 16 walks.

Zimmerman parlayed that season, his final as a pre-arbitration player, into a three-year, $10 million contract, but during a physical administered as part of the contract process, he had an adverse reaction to a diagnostic injection.  Whether the shot damaged his elbow or he adjusted his mechanics detrimentally to compensate for the discomfort, Zimmerman was shut down before the 2002 season began, and a series of elbow surgeries would ultimately prevent him from ever returning to the mound.  The phenomenal career that started too late would also end far too early.  

While Zimmerman defied all odds to become one of the game’s great relievers over a short period of time, it’s safe to say the Rangers hope that Castillo won’t be a relief pitcher at all.  Signing in July 2005 for $400,000, one of the largest international bonuses the Rangers have ever paid, the club views the 6’3″, 200-pound Castillo as a pitcher who could develop into a potential front-end starter.  

Castillo made one Arizona League appearance in 2006 (three scoreless innings), spending most of that season in the Dominican Summer League, where he went 1-4, 3.46 with 37 strikeouts in 26 innings and a brilliant 3.11 groundout-to-flyout rate.  In his next-to-last DSL start, the righthander one-hit the Orioles squad in 5.2 innings, walking none and getting an incredible 14 of his 17 outs on strikes.  

Castillo’s 2007 (Spokane) and 2008 (Clinton) seasons have been remarkably similar and relatively disappointing.  He has posted a 5.93 ERA over the two seasons with seven strikeouts and four walks per nine innings.  Working in the mid-90s and touching 97, he’s been unable to command his breaking ball or changeup consistently, and the Rangers have changed his role a couple times to try and get him into a rhythm.  Castillo began the season in the LumberKings’ bullpen, moved into the rotation in mid-May (though he was never stretched more than five innings), and returned to a relief role at the end of June.  

While nobody in baseball wanted to take a chance on Zimmerman despite his collegiate success, scouts continue to rave about Castillo in spite of his mediocre minor league results.  Even though his Northwest League ERA was 5.92 in 2007, managers and scouts ranked him as that league’s number five prospect (third among pitchers) after the season.  

Castillo has an undeniably tremendous upside, but perhaps notably, his best inning statistically in both 2007 and 2008 has been the first, which at least suggests that he might be most effective right out of the gate and in short spurts.  His power arsenal might even play up in concentrated doses, which is how you’d like your eighth-inning pitcher to profile.

Developing any 16-year-old into a big league pitcher has to be considered a success, even if not in the role originally envisioned for him.  And as Zimmerman proved in 1999, the Rangers’ last playoff season, having a shutdown pitcher around who owns the eighth inning can be immensely valuable, whether it leads to better things down the road or not.  

 

Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com.  A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger.  He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com.  This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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