Monday, December 7, 2015

Tigers Trying to Win Now

The Tigers reversed course by signing Zimmermann (Fox Sports)
More than a week after the news become official, I still can't believe Jordan Zimmermann was the first player in this year's stacked free agent class to land a $100 million ($110 million, actually) payday.

Five years ago it seemed more likely that Zimmermann would be out of baseball by now than collecting a nine-figure check. His first two seasons, which were interrupted by Tommy John surgery, yielded a 4-7 record and 4.71 ERA--hardly a promising start. His third year--and first full one back from TJ--was better, but his strikeout rate dipped below 7.0 K/9--a steep drop from the 9.1 K/9 mark he flashed as a rookie. Given his below-average whiff rates, it was anybody's guess as to whether he'd stick in the Show.

Since then, Zimm's been one of the best dozen pitchers in baseball. His ability to limit mistakes and control the strike zone has helped him stay effective despite middling strikeout rates. He's also been durable, averaging over 200 innings the last four years. Zimmermann's basically Matt Cain, who received an almost identical extension from the Giants in 2012 (Cain was actually two years younger when he signed his deal, but contracts have risen since then due to inflation).

But is he a good fit for the Tigers? Last year Detroit appeared to enter rebuild mode after trading players that were about to become free agents (David Price and Yoenis Cespedes) and finishing last in their division for the first time since 2008. They fired their general manager, Dave Dombrowksi, along the way, signaling the dawn of a new regime in Motown.

After the season however, team manager Brad Ausmus insisted the Tigers were not rebuilding, which sounded like a bunch of hot air at the time. Obviously Ausmus wouldn't admit punting on 2016 just hours after 2015 had ended.

Two months later, it's clear the Tigers are not rebuilding; they are reloading. Rebuilding teams don't sign 29 year-old starting pitchers to $110 million contracts. They are doing what Boston did in 2014, selling at the deadline before regrouping in the offseason.

Detroit hasn't spent this much on a pitcher since giving Justin Verlander a five-year, $140 million extension prior to the 2013 season. Given how poorly that one's worked out, it's not surprising the Tigers were hesitant to pay pitchers similarly large sums in recent years. They decided David Price and Max Scherzer were too rich for their blood, letting them seek massive contracts elsewhere. But Zimmermann came at roughly half the cost of them and Zack Greinke, making him look like a veritable bargain by comparison.

On the surface, a five-year deal to an under-30 pitcher with barely 1,000 major league innings on his arm smells like a great deal. If I'm the Tigers, however, I'm definitely worried about how their new ace will adjust to the American League, especially after coming off his worst season in five years. Zimmermann struggled a bit in 2015 as his walk, hit, and home run rates rose, his strikeout rate dropped, and his ERA rose a full run. He went from being a Cy Young candidate and borderline ace in 2013-2014 to a midrotation-level pitcher in 2015.

Going forward, his 2015 is probably his ceiling. If he sustains that level throughout the life of his contract, or returns to his 2013-2014 norms, he'll be worth it. If last year marked the start of his decline phase, however, than Detroit's going to regret this deal almost as soon as they soured on Verlander's (A likely scenario, given that pitchers without elite strikeout potential are more susceptible to losing it overnight i.e. Cain and Doug Fister)

This deal would look much better had it been signed before last year, as now Zimmermann's future appears less certain. Is he a pitcher on the downswing, or was 2015 merely an off-year? Will he bounce back in 2016, or have we already seen the best of him? Detroit just paid a boatload to find out.

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