Like most of us fantasy baseball enthusiasts, I spent the July 16th night digging through Twitter reading the latest news. One little tidbit came up into my feed and piqued my interest. Bradley Zimmer had hit a home run for the 2nd night in a row. The previous night, he went 3-3 with two home runs against Mike Clevinger. To say I was interested would be putting it mildly. While it was just intrasquad games (and Clevinger’s third time facing pitchers since his injury), I was still left with wanting to find out more.
We shouldn’t forget how highly rated Zimmer was as a prospect. Drafted in the first round (21st overall) by the Cleveland Indians, Zimmer showed everything you would want in a five-tool prospect. He had speed for days, allowing him to steal plenty of bases and make outrageous catches. Enough power to become a consistent power-speed threat and showed the on-base prowess many players wish they had. His prospect status was at its peak in 2017, as he ranked 19th overall on MLB.com’s top prospect list and destroyed AAA to the tune of .294/.371/.532. He would get called up and while he wouldn’t have the debut in the majors he would have liked (79 wRC+), he did have 18 stolen bases in 101 games. His stolen-base percentage was second in the AL with a 94.74% rate and 2nd in the AL with outfield assists with eight in his partial season. This showed the floor with Zimmer, as even if he didn’t ever hit he would be a defensive wizard.
The last two years have not been kind to Zimmer. Shoulder surgery in July of 2018 derailed that season and a setback during Spring Training ensured he wouldn’t be back immediately. It wouldn’t be till August that he would get some rehab at-bats in and was starting to find a groove in AAA. He was a September callup for the Cleveland Indians but got barely any time to prove himself, mostly pinch-hitting and slashing a beautiful .000/.071/.000. Strikeouts, as they have been for his career, plagued him for these 14 small plate-appearances. In Spring Training I he showed the same strikeout issues, slashing .200/.231/.440 with 10 strikeouts in 26 plate-appearances. So, if these issues are so prevalent, why am I excited with Zimmer?
Enter Summer Camp. Zimmer would have to fight for his roster spot and needed to prove with this restart of a season he deserves to be here. As of July 22nd, he’s 10-21 with four home runs in seven intrasquad games. While we have to take these numbers with a grain of salt because, intrasquad, something was different about Zimmer. Reading an article on Cleveland.com I noticed an interesting quote from Clevinger.
“Zim looks like an Avatar … he is a Avatar,” said Clevinger. “The way he changed his stance, you can’t just beat him up and in like you used to. We used to talk about it in Triple-A. You used to be able to beat him all day inside with high heaters in the strike zone because he couldn’t get to it because of how long he is. By bringing his arms in and getting to his legs, because he’s all legs, he’s going to be a dangerous, dangerous player with that speed.”
Now, THIS is interesting. Changed his stance, you say? While some of this is obviously a good teammate pumping Zimmer’s tires, he was right about Zimmer’s strikeout problem with high fastballs.
The Swing Change And What It Might Mean
While it’s not a massive overhaul of his swing Zimmer has made a conscious effort to keep his bat further away from his shoulder. To my untrained eye, it seems he starts more closed off initiating more of a leg kick and starting his timing earlier. You can’t really tell from the GIF but in his old swing, he used to hunch over the plate. Now he is standing more upright, allowing his hands to get through the zone faster. This should help him get to the ball quicker and, as Clevinger had mentioned, get to the high fastballs easier. This is an encouraging development for the former top prospect but it should be said this isn’t the first swing-change he’s experienced. He had previously tinkered with the swing in 2017 in AAA.
But this time this seems different. He’s confident going into the season and now that he’s made the roster, all he has to do is stay healthy. The Indians have quite a logjam of “outfielders” currently on the roster with Jordan Luplow, Tyler Naquin, Domingo Santana, Franmil Reyes, Oscar Mercado, Greg Allen, Daniel Johnson, and Delino DeShields Jr. on the IL. Playing time might be a concern at first, but upon further inspection, I don’t see it that way.
Playing in Zimmer’s favor is his strongest asset, his defense. He’s one of the three that can truly be a centerfielder along with Allen and Mercado and is easily the best defender at any of the outfield positions. Reyes more than likely occupies the DH spot for the longterm (thanks to his putrid outfield defense) and Luplow/Naquin are more than likely to be in a platoon role in leftfield. Mercado is more than likely patrolling centerfield leaving rightfield as the path to the most playing time. Allen is more than likely a worse version of Zimmer; noodle-like bat with speed and some defense. He’s more of a 5th outfielder type, along with eventually DeShields Jr. Santana was brought in to play a likely outfield role but might be best saved as a bench bat. Last year he was one of the worst defenders in the majors with 12 errors and while he was above-average offensively (109 wRC+) he had a 0 fWAR because of this defense. Right now I can see him getting the initial playing time but eventually conceding the job.
That leaves Daniel Johnson, another prospect who’s got a chance to shine in Cleveland. He was a late addition to the 30-man roster, making me think he’s not in-line for serious playing time. His bat is intriguing as a strong-side platoon outfielder. Once rosters get trimmed down I see him being one of the first to get sent down (or even when DeShields is back).
When playing time does present itself, Zimmer has that power/speed combo that can make a difference in your league. Only eight different hitters went 20/20 in 2019 (three others had 19 home runs or steals) and Zimmer has that upside.
Now, I probably can’t see myself rostering Zimmer when every bench-spot is so valuable. At least in standard 12-team leagues. But he should certainly go on your watchlist. He’s virtually unowned, being 0.7% in ESPN, 1% in CBS, and even only 9% in NFBC. His NFBC ADP from July 1st onwards was 676th. He’s free. And in dynasty leagues, he’s still only 27.
Zimmer isn’t in the lineup for their opener on July 24th. But he should soon become an option for rightfield as long as Santana’s defense still is as bad as advertised. So, what I’m saying is, don’t forget about him.
(Photo credit by Dorian Redden)