The Detroit Tigers' pitching staff is clearly general manager Al Avila's main priority this offseason. Avila has stated his goals are to acquire one front-end starter, and a lesser option for the back of the starting rotation. While discussion around the Tigers' fan base and media have identified numerous other ways to potentially strengthen the roster for the 2016 campaign, it is Avila's opinion that will hold sway.
The question is just how far the Tigers are willing to go in acquiring a front-end starter to pair with Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez. Certainly the elite options, David Price and Zack Greinke, seem like long shots. Both should earn contracts north of $150 million that will pay them into their late 30s. However, there are several other very good starters who could potentially come to the Tigers and do a fine job of occupying the No. 2 or 3 spot in the rotation. One excellent candidate for this role is Jordan Zimmermann.
Who is he?
Zimmermann, 29, was never supposed to be a star pitcher. A Wisconsin native, the 6'2" right-hander went unnoticed in high school, and had to walk onto the baseball team at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He blossomed during his college career, and was the Washington Nationals' second-round pick in 2007.
Once with the organization, Zimmermann quickly established himself as a fine, young prospect in the lower levels of their minor league system, but was sidelined late in the 2009 season for Tommy John surgery. His rehab and recovery went well enough for him to make his major league debut just a year later, and he's been a key piece of the Nationals' rotation ever since.
Zimmermann relies heavily on his fastball, throwing it over 60 percent of the time. He backs it with an excellent hard slider and a decent curveball. Despite only rarely using a circle changeup, Zimmermann has remarkably even splits throughout his career. He's started 32 or more games each of the past four seasons, and while he's not a great strikeout artist, his impeccable control and low walk rate produce a very attractive strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Like the rest of his numbers, Zimmermann's flyball-to-groundball ratio is very balanced, though earlier in his career he was a more consistent groundball pitcher. He is a two-time All-Star, and has a 2014 no-hitter to his credit. Essentially, he's a solid, durable, near-elite starting pitcher whose peripheral numbers indicate great consistency from year to year.
Why should we care?
Zimmermann looks like a perfect candidate for Al Avila's stated desire for a front-end starter. While he hasn't quite hit the peaks of say, Johnny Cueto, recently, he's been more consistent and durable. Zimmermann has produced 3.0 fWAR or more in each of the last five seasons, and twice finished a season with an ERA under 3.00.
There's also the notoriety factor. While pitchers like Greinke or Cueto have pulled plenty of headlines, Zimmermann seems a quite unassuming fellow. He's flown under the radar a bit with popular names like Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, and in 2015, Max Scherzer, getting most of the Nationals' ink. You have a two-time All-Star with a good deal of postseason experience, who's often been overshadowed on his own team. As a result, he hasn't really leveraged any star power, and may prove a bit cheaper than his numbers would suggest. Particularly since 2015 was a down year for him.
Another factor to like about Zimmermann is the fact that his walk rate has been consistently excellent. He doesn't make it easy to get on base. And once you're there, he's extremely stingy about allowing stolen bases. Combined with the mighty right arm of Tigers' catcher James McCann, you'd have a tandem that forces an offense to earn everything they get.
In addition, the Nationals were a fairly lousy defensive club in 2015, while the Tigers were one of the best. Losing Yoenis Cespedes will put a dent in the Tigers' defensive improvement, but it's still not far-fetched to imagine the Detroit defense providing Zimmermann with better support than he had in his down season in 2015.
Why should we stay away?
The main reason to pass on Zimmermann is likely to be the contract he's in line for. With so many pitchers available in free agency, it's unwise to feel too certain about estimates, but certainly Zimmermann is a guy who will expect to earn over $20 million a year, on a contract of at least five years. Signing him would make it even more difficult for the Tigers to fill all their stated needs by conventional means.
The other reason that the Tigers may decide to pass on Zimmermann is simply his 2015 season. His fastball showed just a slight decline in velocity. However, there was a substantial one in terms of effectiveness. As a result, Zimmermann's usually solid home run rate took a hit in 2015, though it should be mentioned that his home park was notably worse for pitchers in this regard in 2015 than in years past. For a starter who absolutely lives and dies by the fastball, his walk year was a poor time to show a marked dip in his fastball's dominance. Still, the movement was as good as ever, as was his dominant slider, and one season isn't enough to call this a black mark on his resume.
Will he end up in Detroit?
No rumors have yet surfaced connecting Detroit to an interest in Zimmermann. At this point in early November, that doesn't necessarily mean anything. Still, it seems a bit unlikely that Zimmermann really suits both the Tigers' needs and budget. While he'd be an excellent addition to the rotation, he's also one of the more costly options available, both yearly and in terms of overall years and value required to bring him to Detroit.
Were the Tigers to sign Zimmermann, they'd be hard-pressed to fill their other needs without exceeding current payroll estimates. Adding another starter and bullpen help would certainly be possible, but there'd be little to nothing left in resources remaining to allocate to what looks like a seriously weakened outfield for the Tigers heading into 2016.