In a move that will frustrate copy editors across Michigan, the Tigers have reportedly agreed to terms with starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann. The deal isn’t yet official, but assuming the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed, the Tigers will spend $110 million over the next five seasons to bring the righty to Detroit.
To catch you up on Zimmermann, he’s entering his age 30 season and is coming off five straights seasons of 3 fWAR or better. He’s made 32+ starts and has thrown 195+ innings in each of the last four years. Zimmermann is a reliable and talented right-hander who will immediately improve the Tigers rotation. But any analysis requires more interesting questions. It’s inarguable that Zimmermann has been a good pitcher over the last five seasons, but we don’t really care about that directly. We only care about how well Zimmermann is likely to pitch over the next five years and if that justifies the investment the Tigers are about to make.
Let’s start with the first question. How good is Zimmermann going to be in 2016 and beyond? To answer that, we need to start with how good we think he is right now and then apply some type of basic aging expectation. From 2011-2015, Zimmermann has generally been in the above average but not great class of pitchers. The exception was his great 2014 campaign in which he had a 72 ERA- and 73 FIP- in 199.2 innings. But overall since 2011, his first full year back from Tommy John, Zimmermann has thrown 971.2 innings with an 82 ERA- and 87 FIP-.
He’s a low walk, average strikeout guy who pounds the zone. He seems to have a bit of a home run suppression skill, but nothing so extreme that you’d hang your hat on it with nothing else. This is basically the player we saw in 2015, although the home runs were higher and looked more like league average. The earliest projection from Steamer expects another 3 WAR type year in 2016 with the same basic shape. If you’re using his past history to look forward, you would expect something like one or two more 3 win seasons, a couple 2 win seasons, and a 1.5 win season over the five years in the deal. That’s about 11 wins, which using some rough math is worth about $90 million on the free agent market.
By that accounting, the deal for Zimmermann looks to be a little more than he’s worth, but not egregiously so. If there’s more inflation this winter than we expect it might look just fine. So essentially, you have to ask yourself if you’re bullish on Zimmermann aging well or not. Aging curves are averages of all players, so some guys are like Bonds and some guys are like Griffey.
There are reasons to like Zimmermann and reasons to be concerned. On the positive side, Zimmermann has exceptional command and should be the kind of pitcher who can continue to get hitters out even as his stuff fades. 90 mph on the corner is worse than 93 on the corner, but 90 mph on the corner is better than 90 mph over the plate. A guy whose success is built more heavily on command than stuff should survive aging better than a guy who leans more on stufff. It’s not an exact science, but it’s a positive.
On the other hand, Zimmermann lost about a full mile per hour off his fastball in 2015 compared to 2012-14. Granted, he was sitting 94 and now sits 93, but any sudden drop like that is a red flag. You expect pitchers to lose velocity as they get older, but you want to see a steady and gradual decline rather than a steep fall. He can certainly be effective at 93, but it’s a question of the velocity drop being a precursor to injury.
Which brings us to the other major problem. Zimmermann is about six years removed from Tommy John surgery and while he’s certainly past the first danger zone that occurs during the initial rehab, we’re into the window where it wouldn’t be surprising to see another TJS for Zimmermann. There’s a lot we don’t know about pitcher injuries, but coming back from the second TJS is a bigger challenge than coming back from the first. If he hadn’t had the surgery, you would feel confident than a UCL tear would keep him out for one year, but a second tear could be career threatening, and if it happens early in the deal the Tigers are out of luck.
Zimmermann is a good, consistent pitcher who fills up the zone and has stayed healthy and on the mound over the last several seasons. The Tigers are buying his ages 30-34 seasons for $110 million. If he ages normally or better, it’s a good investment. If he ages poorly, there will be a loss for the club. That’s all pretty boring and easy to understand. In the aggregate, the Tigers paid a fine price for former Nationals’ righty.
So now let’s put him into the Tigers’ context. The club absolutely needed a quality starting pitcher if they wanted to contend in 2016. Going into the year with Verlander, Sanchez, and the kids wouldn’t get them anywhere close to a competitive rotation. Verlander had a great second half of 2015 but has struggled with injuries for several years and pitchers don’t often get healthier with age. Sanchez was great in his first few years with the team but struggled mightily with injuries and poor performance in 2015.
Even if you buy the bounceback, the Tigers would be lucky to have a pair of 3-4 win arms and then a parade of rookies and sophomores still in need of seasoning. Adding Zimmermann helps out on the front end. The Tigers probably could have gone with a true ace, or with a solid starter and then an innings eater. Zimmermann takes them on the latter path in an effective way. He’s not Price or Greinke, but he’s good enough to make a real difference.
The larger question is how his $22 million salary affects the overall ability to spend. With Zimmermann they’re probably up to $160M for 2016 and they still need another starter, an outfielder, and couple of relievers. If they don’t have a mandate to increase the payroll, that’s going to be tough to achieve.
In a vacuum, paying Zimmermann $110 million over 5 years seems like a solid bet given the price of free agent pitching these days. There are some reasons to worry the deal could go south, but that’s why the Tigers only had to give him five years instead of a six or seven. The risk is already priced in and Zimmermann figures to be a solid enough return on investment. A team that needed a starter should be happy with signing Zimmermann to this deal.
But we have to judge the Tigers moves in the context of their overall strategy. So far, they’ve added a good reliever, outfield depth, and a #2 starter in a series of perfectly acceptable moves. From a baseball standpoint, each one looks wise. Bu also from a baseball standpoint, the Tigers have a lot more work to do and have talked like they don’t have a ton more money to spend to do it. If that’s the case, Zimmermann is a more difficult signing to understand. You shouldn’t make a $110 million investment in a pitcher like Zimmermann if 2016 is more of a holding pattern year.
Ultimately, like the moves before it, this is a good one if they made it with the idea that they’re really going for it. Maxing out the payroll to build an 80-win team isn’t a good long terms strategy because it’s wasteful and creates risk before risk is needed. If the club, however, intends to really invest in the pieces they need to be an 87-90 win team, getting Zimmermann is a nice move.