Jordan Zimmermann’s starting role in question after shaky start

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Brad Ausmus won’t say whether or not Jordan Zimmermann has a place in the Tigers’ starting rotation, but it’s not looking good. It’s been a long road back to the major leagues for the right-hander, who has been sidelined on-and-off since July 1 with a neck sprain and right lat tightness.

After getting activated from the disabled list on September 6, Zimmerman got shelled during his first start against the Orioles on Saturday. In one inning of work, he gave up six runs, three homers, and three walks while striking out none. It was hardly the triumphant return the 30-year-old was hoping for, to say nothing of a team that’s looking to bolster its starting rotation as the playoff races heat up.

Zimmermann kept his velocity within the range of his season averages, getting 91.8 m.p.h. from his fastball, 87.8 m.p.h. from his slider, and 79.8 m.p.h. from his curveball, but his command was erratic at best. His fastballs landed high in the strike zone, where they were tagged for home runs by Adam Jones, Chris Davis, and Matt Wieters, and just three of 16 breaking balls landed inside the zone. In a quote by ESPN.com’s Katie Strang, the right-hander admitted to some difficulty in locating his pitches:

I was trying for the corner and I’d miss 5 inches off or down the middle,” Zimmermann said. “In a lineup like this, it’s going to be a long night if you’re doing that, and as you saw, that’s what happened tonight.

Though the Twins series might have given Zimmermann an easier target in his first game back from the DL, there were concerns that a prolonged rest period would negatively affect his schedule. Against the Orioles, a team that looks nothing like the Twins on paper or on the field, Zimmermann found himself on the wrong end of an 11-3 loss.

Despite his weak outing, Zimmermann claims to be feeling healthy, but Ausmus appears more concerned with the right-hander’s lack of dominance than any signs of relapse. If the Tigers keep the veteran righty on a normal schedule, he’ll be eligible to close out the club’s seven-game homestand against the Twins on Thursday afternoon. If not, Ausmus will likely call on rookie Michael Fulmer, who is 10-6 through 23 starts with the team and has produced a 2.76 ERA, 3.81 FIP and 2.6 fWAR in that span. Alternatively, right-hander Mike Pelfrey or reliever Buck Farmer might also be available to slot in for Zimmermann, though Fulmer, Pelfrey, and Farmer are all shackled to tight pitch counts this month.

Prior to his injury, Zimmermann tossed 95 ⅔ innings with the Tigers, landing a 3.95 ERA, 3.57 FIP, and 3.33 K/BB rate in 15 starts.