Jordan Zimmermann can help Tigers, but deal is definitely a risky one

Tigers, Zimmermann reach five-year deal

Jim Bowden evaluates the Tigers' decision to sign pitcher Jordan Zimmermann to a five-year, $110 million deal.

The Detroit Tigers came into the offseason with only three solid starters, one of whom, Daniel Norris, has just 66 career innings and had surgery in October to treat thyroid cancer, so adding a veteran starter capable of soaking up innings had to be a major priority for the winter. Jordan Zimmermann fills that specific need quite clearly, as he has been durable and effective since his return from Tommy John surgery in 2009, but a downturn in his stuff and performance in 2015 makes it seem the Tigers are paying for a version of Zimmermann that no longer exists.

Zimmermann's velocity was slightly off from the start of 2015, and he changed his approach to emphasize his offspeed stuff, with unfortunate results, from fewer missed bats and more walks to career-high ERA and FIP numbers. He looked for all the world like a pitcher entering a decline phase, one in which either he changes his entire style of pitching to accommodate his reduced stuff or he ends up a much worse pitcher than what the Tigers are paying him to be. He still has outstanding control -- a major driver in his two top-10 finishes in WAR for National League pitchers in 2012 and 2014 -- but with decreased stuff, he missed fewer bats, became more homer-prone and finished the year as a slightly above-average starter whose indicators were pointing down.

That version of Zimmermann can help the Tigers, whose alternatives for the rotation right now read like a cast of rejected reindeer for Santa's sleigh. Of the four most likely candidates who pitched for the Tigers in 2014, none had a better ERA than Kyle Lobstein's 5.94. The Tigers did add their new top prospect Michael Fulmer, who dominated Double-A last year, in the trade for Yoenis Cespedes, and he might be their best option for the fifth spot, but he probably wouldn't be ready for more than 150 or so innings in 2016. Anibal Sanchez, the nominal No. 2 starter for the Tigers, had a 4.99 ERA last year and hasn't been healthy and effective at the same time since 2013. Justin Verlander seemed like a new man after his return from shoulder woes last season, but he only threw 133 innings and has yet to show he can hold his level of performance over 32 starts. As such, Zimmermann can help this team substantially even if he's no better than what he was in 2015: about a three-win starter who fills 200 innings.

The problem with this contract is it prices Zimmermann as if he's not declining and has little risk of injury or steep dropoff in performance. Zimmermann was worse across the board in 2015 and now has 1,000-plus innings on that new ligament. Any realistic projection going out five years would show some significant probability of one of two things -- major injury or major loss of effectiveness -- happening before the contract ends. The Tigers are paying him to be a three-win starter, but the over/under on value for this deal is well south of 15 WAR before it's over.

The Washington Nationals, meanwhile, get a compensatory draft pick for making Zimmermann a qualifying offer and watching him sign elsewhere. With Joe Ross, Tanner Roark and A.J. Cole all available to man the Nats' last two rotation spots and Lucas Giolito very close to contributing as well, Washington could easily afford to let Zimmermann go and potentially use the savings to upgrade center field or address the gravitational singularity behind the plate.

Whereas the Tigers' deal with Zimmermann seems to assume 2015 was a blip to be largely overlooked, the Toronto Blue Jays' three-year, $36 million deal with J.A. Happ appears to assume that 2015 -- specifically the last two months of it -- reflects the pitcher's true talent level, while the 950 innings of below-average pitching that came before no longer count.

It's fair to argue Happ was a different pitcher with Pittsburgh, changing his mechanics and pitch mix under the tutelage of pitcher whisperer Ray Searage, throwing more fastballs and throwing them a bit harder than before. If he really can continue to miss bats and strike out a quarter of the guys he faces, this is a reasonable deal, but in no way does it accurately price the risk that those 63 innings were either a stone fluke or so tied to Pittsburgh (coaching and defense) that they won't carry over to Toronto or the American League.

With this contract, the two-year, $26 million deal the Jays gave Marco Estrada, despite a 4.40 FIP and career-low home run rate, and the reacquisition of Jesse Chavez, the Jays appear to have filled their 2016 rotation, an acknowledgment that they were never going to re-sign David Price and Aaron Sanchez's future is most likely in the bullpen.