When newly-signed reliever Shawn Kelley walked around the Washington Convention Center Sunday at Nationals WinterFest, it's fair to wonder how many fans did a double take. Not only was he a fresh face on a revamped bullpen, he was also donning jersey No. 27. As in, the number that belonged to Jordan Zimmermann for the past six seasons. Kelley may have just arrived in D.C., but even he realized how strange a sight that must be for the locals.
"Is that too soon?" Kelley asked a Nats clubhouse manager shortly after he received his new uniform. The response: "Nah, it's just a number. Nobody will mind."
And just like that, the Nats have begun Life After Zimmermann. The 29-year-old right hander, who signed a five-year, $110 million dollar contract with the Detroit Tigers in late November, was considered by many to be the best starting pitcher in the organization's 10-year history in D.C. Though the career stats were impressive — he posted a 70-50 record with a 3.32 ERA from 2009-2015 — Zimmermann's old teammates emphasized over the weekend that the void created by his departure goes far beyond his on-field production.
"He left a huge mark on this organization with what he did," former rotation-mate Gio Gonzalez said. "We lost not only a great teammate, but a family member too."
"Those things are sad," added left fielder Jayson Werth. "You go through those things as you go on through your career. You play with guys and you're like family. When somebody goes the other way, it's kind of like a time of your life is gone. From that perspective, it's sad. Jordan was a great player and a great person."
Of course, Zimmermann signing elsewhere didn't catch Nats players or fans by surprise in the least. It was widely known that the Wisconsin native, whose contract with Washington ended after 2015, would very likely leave so that he could play closer to his home state. Not that the expectation of his exit lessened the sting.
"I think we all knew it was coming, but I'm very happy for him," second baseman Danny Espinosa said. "He's a great guy. He's a guy that you want on your team. He goes out there and competes every day. He's not going to give up. It doesn't matter if he's pitching well or if he's having an off-day, he's not going to give up. He's going to keep grinding. He's a guy you want on your staff."
The loss of Zimmermann, in addition to the likely loss of longtime shortstop Ian Desmond, is yet another signal of the organization's clear shift toward building a younger roster. Veterans like Zimmermann, Desmond and centerfielder Denard Span will be replaced with the likes of low experience, high upside players like Joe Ross, Michael Taylor, Trea Turner and (eventually) Lucas Giolito. However, the team's new direction didn't stop the longest tenured National of them all, Ryan Zimmerman, from reflecting on the group of players that helped take the organization from a perennial bottom feeder to being among the upper tier in the National League.
"We had a really good thing for a long time," the first baseman said. "We did a lot of things and took this organization to a place that it obviously it had never been before and sort of set the bar to where now every year we expect to contend and expect to try and win the division.....I think that group will always be special to us [and] to the fans who saw me, Jordan, Ian — they basically saw us grow up. Those things happen, they end."
But, as Zimmerman conceded, the Nats must move on.
"Honestly, maybe it's good to have a little shake up sometimes too," he said. "You can always look at it that way."