Finding the next Jordan Zimmermann

Updated: May 3, 2012, 3:47 PM ET
By Teddy Mitrosilis

It's all worked out quite well now, but before the Washington Nationals made him a second-round pick in 2007, before the big league success, Jordan Zimmermann traipsed across obscure ballparks in the Midwest. He arrived at Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point as a kid with some talent who was waiting for that talent to mature and that chance to materialize.

"I was a late-bloomer," Zimmermann said. "Some guys bloom early. But I was throwing 84-86 in high school and wasn't recruited at all. I got one letter from Minnesota, and that was it."

So Zimmermann stayed close to home, 20 minutes away at Stevens Point, and he worked. He worked on his body and his arm and his skills. And then his story forked away from the majority of Division II and Division III hopefuls.

Aided by a college training program and natural physical maturity, Zimmermann's fastball cracked 90 mph his freshman year. By his sophomore year, the 90s morphed into 91s and 92s. That summer, he went to the Northwoods League and competed against Division I players, and scouts began to notice him. In his junior season at Stevens Point, scouts arrived in groups and pointed their radar guns at a now legitimate prospect. The guns flickered with 93s and 94s.

"(Washington GM Mike) Rizzo saw me twice, and I threw a little harder and had pretty good control," Zimmermann said. "I was just fortunate."

Zimmermann was more than fortunate, of course. He was simply good. But he knows the difficulties small-school pitchers face, he knows the disadvantages. Finding elite talent at Division II and Division III schools is rare, and that reality can burden even the blessed. Quality arms at this level sometimes have to blow their fastballs by perception, too, and that includes this year's top Division II prospect Stephen Johnson -- a 6-foot-6, 205-pound right-hander out of St. Edwards in Austin, Texas.

"Some scouts prefer a top-40, D-I program guy when trying to project the future grade," one National League talent evaluator said. "For D-II and D-III guys, you have to dream a little bit."