The first major free-agent prize of this off-season has gone to the Tigers, who came to terms with former Nationals ace Jordan Zimmermann on Sunday on a deal worth a reported $110 million over five years. At first glance, that deal looks like something of a hometown discount from the central Wisconsin native, who likely could have eked out at least one more year and another $20-odd million had he let the market develop. It is also a deal that dramatically improves a shaky Tigers rotation that lost Max Scherzer to the Nationals last winter and has also jettisoned Doug Fister, Drew Smyly, Rick Porcello and David Price over the last two years while Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez have battled decline and injury.
Zimmermann is one of four elite starters to reach free agency this fall, joining Price, Zack Greinke and Johnny Cueto. All four rank among the top 10 pitchers in baseball in total wins above replacement (Baseball-Reference version) over the last four years. Zimmermann is ninth on that list, directly behind Cueto and ahead of his new Tigers rotation-mate, Verlander. Over those last four years, Zimmermann has averaged 203 innings per season while compiling a 3.13 ERA (124 ERA+) and a strong 4.37 strikeout-to-walk ratio anchored by his excellent control (he led the NL with just 1.3 walks per nine innings in 2014 and has never issued more than 41 unintentional walks in a season). Zimmermann is also the third-youngest pitcher in that top 10, three months younger than Cueto and older than only lefties Chris Sale and Clayton Kershaw (Scherzer, Felix Hernandez and Cole Hamels are the three pitchers on the list I haven’t yet named). The Tigers’ new righthander won’t turn 30 until May 23 of next year and will be just 34 when his new contract expires in the fall of 2020.
That’s a tremendous résumé, but two things put Zimmermann at the back of that quartet of elite free-agent starters coming into the off-season: his August 2009 Tommy John surgery and his relatively disappointing walk-year campaign. Zimmermann had a tough act to follow this past season coming off an impressive showing in 2014—he set career bests in ERA (2.66) ERA+ (141), WHIP (1.07), K/BB (6.28), K/9 (8.2), BB/9 (that league-leading 1.3), HR/9 (0.6), strikeouts (182) and bWAR (4.9). He made his second All-Star team that season and finished the regular season with a no-hitter, a dominant postseason outing and a fifth-place finish in the Cy Young voting. Indeed, he failed to replicate any of those numbers in 2015, walking 10 more men (three intentionally) and striking out 18 fewer in two more innings and, more problematically, allowing 11 more home runs while losing one mile-per-hour off his fastball. That last was more troubling than his still-strong showing on the season as a whole (3.66 ERA, 110 ERA+, 4.21 K/BB) and likely contributed to conversations about just how long a Tommy John repair is expected to last, particularly in the elbow of a pitcher such as Zimmermann, who throws in the mid-90s.
Not counting the year of rehabilitation following his surgery, Zimmermann will be 10 full seasons removed from his first Tommy John surgery by the end of his new contract, something which likely gave rival suitors pause. Given those concerns, it’s no surprise that he wound up in Detroit, as one of the best counter-examples to the fear of an ulnar collateral ligament replacement being a ticking time bomb can be found in the Tigers’ rotation in Sanchez. Sanchez had Tommy John surgery in 2003 at the age of 19, before he ever threw a pitch in the minor leagues. Since then, he has thrown 1,726 2/3 innings among the minors, majors and major-league postseason and led the American League in ERA two seasons ago in his 10th post-surgery season. Sanchez has had his share of shoulder trouble over the intervening years, including labrum surgery in 2007, but he has not had any elbow issues in a dozen seasons since his TJ surgery.
There are other examples. Ryan Dempster pitched three-plus years in relief followed by seven full seasons as a starter after his August 2003 Tommy John surgery. C.J. Wilson’s entire 11-year major-league career, six of those seasons spent as a starter, have come since his August 2003 surgery. Tommy John himself isn’t the best comparison because he was a soft-tossing ground baller, but he pitched 14 more years after having his groundbreaking surgery. Given those examples and Zimmermann’s overall excellence, a five-year deal that expires before he turns 35 seems like a worthwhile gamble for a Tigers team that had the highest rotation ERA in the American League this past season (4.78, a full quarter-run per nine innings worse than the Orioles’ 14th-place 3.53 mark).
Zimmermann, Verlander and Sanchez give the Tigers a rotation trio with elite upside, albeit a considerable amount of uncertainty. Verlander has struggled to recapture his peak form over the last three seasons and will turn 33 in February. He managed to arrest the decline in his velocity and strikeout rates last year while reducing his walks and had a strong second half, posting a 2.27 ERA and 4.55 K/BB over his final 14 starts, but it’s still difficult to project him to be significantly above average in the coming season. Now three years removed from the heavy workloads of his peak seasons, age is joining fatigue as a major factor behind his decline. Sanchez is a year younger, but is coming off a lousy season in which he led the AL in home runs allowed despite throwing just 157 innings due to continued shoulder issues. Zimmermann is a much-needed injection of youth and reliability, but the whispers about the durability of his elbow will continue.
Zimmermann’s new contract extends a year past the end of Verlander’s pact and positions him as the new lynchpin of the Detroit rotation. In Zimmermann and lefty Daniel Norris, who will turn 23 in April and was the primary prospect acquired from the Blue Jays for Price, the Tigers have better and more realistic targets for optimism in their rotation than Verlander and Sanchez, and could have another as soon as the later part of the 2016 season if righty Michael Fulmer, the main piece acquired from the Mets for Yoenis Cespedes, has a strong showing in the upper minors to start the season.
In the short term, the Tigers still need more rotation depth, including a better fifth-starter option than Shane Greene and company (Matt Boyd, Kyle Lobstein, Buck Farmer). However, landing an ace was job No. 1 for new general manager Al Avila. In Zimmermann, Avila not only got his man, but reeled him in with a very reasonable deal that is likely to make Zimmermann the least expensive of this winter’s four elite free-agent starting pitchers.