For four consecutive years, the Detroit Tigers sat comfortably atop the throne of the American League Central Division. Last year, they relinquished that reign and did so in dramatic fashion, fielding the franchise’s worst rotation since the 119-loss Tigers of 2003 while plummeting to last place in the division.
Clearly, the Tigers were going to add a pitcher or three in the offseason. The question was, would it be a series of band-aids to stop the bleeding, or something bigger to put them back on the attack? On Sunday, that question was answered, when the Tigers agreed to terms with Jordan Zimmermann.
Those terms, precisely, are five years and $110 million, which is less than the 6/120 that our crowdsourcing project predicted. In past years, the crowd has tended to err on the low side, especially with high-profile free agents, so any time a guy signs for less, it looks good for the team.
In fact, if you start with Zimmermann’s +3 WAR Steamer projection for 2016, assume he ages somewhat well and factor in inflation, Zimmermann’s contract comes out as a carbon-copy of what would be considered the fair, market price:
|2016||30||3.0||$8.0 M||$24.0 M|
|2017||31||2.8||$8.4 M||$23.1 M|
|2018||32||2.5||$8.8 M||$22.1 M|
|2019||33||2.3||$9.3 M||$20.8 M|
|2020||34||2.0||$9.7 M||$19.4 M|
What the Tigers are paying for here is consistency. This is a team that gave 147 innings to Buck Farmer, Kyle Lobstein, Kyle Ryan, and Randy Wolf last year, and a team whose only qualified pitcher was Alfredo Simon. Even at the top of the rotation, there’s former workhorse Justin Verlander, who looked like his old self once returning from injury but still needs to prove he can throw 200 innings again; Anibal Sanchez, who has either been hurt or ineffective each of the last two years; and Daniel Norris, who’s never thrown more than 150 innings in professional ball and just had a cancerous growth removed from his thyroid.
The Tigers desperately needed to take potential future innings away from the Farmer/Lobstein/Ryan trio while lessening the risk that comes with Verlander, Sanchez and Norris by bumping them down the depth chart. Zimmermann achieves just that. Since 2012, Zimmermann has thrown at least 190 innings in all four years. His strikeout rates have been 19%, 19%, 23% and 20%. His walk rates have been 5%, 5%, 4% and 5%. Only 57 pitchers have thrown at least 100 innings in each of the last four seasons, and only six of them (Gio Gonzalez, Miguel Gonzalez, Cole Hamels, Dan Haren, Mike Leake, and Lance Lynn) have smaller standard deviations in their yearly innings, strikeouts, walks and homer totals than Zimmermann. That is to say, Zimmermann has quantifiably been one of the game’s most consistent pitchers over the last four years, and there’s a difference between consistently Dan Haren and consistently Jordan Zimmermann.
But here’s the thing: the Tigers’ rotation, before the Zimmermann signing, was projected as the 28th-best rotation in baseball for 2016. Or, to put it another way: the third-worst. They were projected for just 8.9 WAR, ahead of only the Phillies and Braves. Now, with Zimmermann, the Tigers move all the way up to… 23rd, surpassing the Diamondbacks, Blue Jays, Brewers, and Angels with a collective projection of 10.1 WAR. This still isn’t seen as a very good rotation, and that’s with the assumption that Verlander can throw 195 innings, Sanchez can stay healthy enough for 167, and Norris can get to 150. Of course, those are numbers that could easily be exceeded. Just as easily, though, they could fall short, and then the Tigers are back to giving innings to Buck Farmer, because the depth still isn’t there.
Zimmermann is a frontline starter who currently doubles as a safety net. That the Tigers were willing to go out and get one of the top free agents on the market signifies that they’re looking to contend again, effectively immediately, yet we cannot ignore that this roster, as currently constructed, still has the lowest projected WAR of any team in the Central, and they’ve already made not one but three significant offseason acquisitions. Even after Cameron Maybin, Francisco Rodriguez and now Zimmermann, there’s work to be done in Detroit. And for the commitment to Zimmermann to pay any immediate dividends, that work needs to be done.
Including Zimmermann, the Tigers have around $146 million on the books in guaranteed money alone for 2016, and after factoring in arbitration and minimum salaries, you could be looking at a payroll that already sits north of $160 million before the Winter Meetings. Last year’s Opening Day payroll was $173 million, but that was also the highest in team history. The intentions of 86-year-old owner Mike Illitch are clear — win a championship at any cost — but you wonder how high the payroll can feasibly go. Surely, there’s still some wiggle room left in the pocket book, but how much? Enough to go get an Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Gordon, or Justin Upton to fill the void that is currently the Tigers’ left field situation? Enough to construct a realistic contender to justify Zimmermann’s deal?
There’s also the fact that, for as consistently great as Zimmermann’s been, last year was his worst full year as a starter since his Tommy John surgery in 2009. The fastball lost more than a full tick of velocity from the previous year. Lefties hit him hard, the strikeout rate dropped, and the home run rate spiked to career-high levels. Pitchers lose something like half a strikeout per nine when switching from the National League to the American League, and the ERA typically jumps something like half a run. Of course, this is all factored into the projections, which is why Steamer just sees him as a +3 WAR pitcher in 2016, rather than the +4-5 WAR level he’d established the prior three years, but it’s worth pointing out that for as sturdy and dominant as he’s been in the past, he’s clearly a step below the true aces of the market in Zack Greinke, David Price, and probably even Johnny Cueto.
Still, the Tigers got the next-best thing, and even if he is just the three-win pitcher he was last season, they got him at a perfectly reasonable cost. If he returns to 2012-14 Zimmermann form, it’s possible the Tigers got a steal. There’s some added value at the team-specific level, given who Zimmermann was replacing in the rotation and the fact that the Tigers are now less reliant on the health of Verlander, Sanchez and Norris. Still, Zimmermann alone isn’t enough to move the needle by more than a couple wins, and the Tigers need more than a couple extra wins for Zimmermann to pitch in October like they’ve surely envisioned. His $22 million salary for 2016 may hamstring them a bit in adding those necessary, additional pieces, but if there’s one thing we know about the Tigers it’s that they’re probably willing to spend more than we think they’re willing to spend. It’s not enough just yet, but it’s a big step, and you need to take big steps when you’re trying to climb out of the basement.
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.