Jordan Zimmermann just had his best start in a Detroit Tigers uniform on Friday evening. He all but blanked the Texas Rangers for eight innings, side-stepping a Shin-Soo Choo leadoff home run to retire 24 of the next 26 batters he faced. He struck out 11 Rangers and did not walk a batter, and did it all on 96 pitches. Some argued that he should have gone back out for the ninth inning, and they had a strong case; Zimmermann retired the last 11 batters he faced.
It was nothing new for those who have paid close attention, either. Over his past four starts, Zimmermann has a 1.73 ERA with 24 strikeouts and one walk in 26 innings. He has allowed just two runs in his last three outings, and has maintained a solid strikeout-to-walk ratio all season long. In 56 1⁄3 innings this year, Zimmermann has 56 strikeouts to just 10 walks. He is throwing his slider and curveball more than ever, leading to career-high strikeout and whiff rates.
Already, some Tigers fans are hopeful that this hot streak could turn Zimmermann into a legitimate trade chip at the trade deadline. But let me stop you right there. It makes very little sense for the Tigers to shop Zimmermann this year, as a number of things (mainly his contract) get in the way of the Tigers netting a good return.
Seriously, have you seen that contract?
The Tigers signed Zimmermann to a five-year, $110 million deal in November 2015. It looked like a safe bet at the time, especially as lesser pitchers like Jeff Samardzija and Wei-Yin Chen signed contracts of similar length and value. Even compared to the top arms on the market — remember when the Red Sox gave David Price $217 million? — Zimmermann’s contract looked like one of the best value deals given out that winter.
What many don’t realize is that the Tigers backloaded Zimmermann’s contract. He “only” made $18 million in 2016 and 2017, as other big money deals finally started to come off the books. This season, Zimmermann’s salary jumped to $24 million, and he is due $25 million in both 2019 and 2020. That’s $62 million in remaining salary, give or take a couple million dollars based on how far into July you read this article. Even if the Tigers eat a healthy chunk of that money, any team adding Zimmermann to their roster will be committing to a significant financial burden for a player who has still been one of the worst starters in baseball over the past few seasons.
Oh yeah, about that...
We have fawned over Zimmermann’s last four starts, and for good reason, but assuming teams would suddenly be interested in him glosses over the fact that the past two years have been nothing short of disaster. Zimmermann still has a 5.23 ERA in 321 2⁄3 innings in a Tigers uniform, and was worth 0.0 rWAR prior to Friday’s outing. He has struggled to stay healthy, even hitting the disabled list this season due to a shoulder injury. He has a chronic neck condition — one that he still receives occasional injections for — and his fastball velocity is still declining.
The above paragraph is what other teams and fanbases still see. Zimmermann has been a nice story in Detroit over the past couple weeks, but the gaudy numbers cited above are still a footnote at the end of a very bad two-plus year stretch in Detroit. He will need to prove to teams that he can sustain this for much longer than a few weeks before they start to get interested in acquiring his services. Given the financial obligations mentioned above, it might not even be until next summer that teams start to show interest in trading for Zimmermann.
And if he’s still good by then...
Let’s say Zimmermann does this for another year. He pitches at a near All-Star level (yeah, really) down the stretch, and does the same for another three months at the start of the 2019 season. Where does that leave the Tigers? Sure, they have gotten some decent pitching and still find themselves well below .500, but if Zimmermann is healthy and firing on all cylinders? The Tigers might actually find themselves close to contention, giving them little incentive to trade Zimmermann elsewhere. It’s a complicated hypothetical, of course, but a healthy and productive Zimmermann makes the Tigers better, which could push them closer to a playoff race as some of their top prospects start to reach the majors.
Long story short, the Tigers have little reason to trade Zimmerman right now. His contract is the main burden, but teams might not trust him to stay healthy and effective even if Detroit ate a significant chunk of change. He’s more valuable to the Tigers on their roster than off it, and might still help the team compete for a playoff spot if everything goes well. Just enjoy the ride while it lasts.