The Detroit Tigers are reportedly in “serious” talks with right-handed starter Jordan Zimmermann. Less than four months removed from beginning a “re-booting” process, the Tigers appear to have already flipped the switch back to buying up high-priced, free-agent pitchers in their thirties. Detroit is already locked into two more years of declining performance from Anibal Sanchez and at least four more years of Justin Verlander.
Jordan Zimmermann is hardly a safe bet for a franchise that traded away David Price and Yoenis Cespedes in July to begin rebuilding one of the league’s worst farm systems. Managing risk and avoiding long-term contracts for players entering the downward arc of their career has not been a strong suit for the Tigers organization. Owner Mike Ilitch wants a title for his baseball team to match his Stanley Cup trophies. Those Red Wings title teams, however, were built using a savvy blend of drafting and player development. With the Tigers, Ilitch has developed few stars outside of Verlander, while continuing to throw money at older free agents. Zimmermann fits that bill.
The Wisconsin native could be seen as a good fit for the Tigers, and might want to get closer to home, rather than sign with a California-based team. The 29-year-old, who will be 30 during the second month of the 2016 season, is coming off his worst full season. Zimmermann allowed a career-high 3.66 ERA, saw his WHIP top 1.2 for the first time, allowed over a hit per inning, and saw his strikeout rate drop from 8.2 to 7.3 per nine. All of this should be alarming when a team thinks about signing a soon-to-be 30-year-old pitcher (with a Tommy John to his name, no less) to a five-year deal likely worth close to $125 million. While there is no indication that a severe decline in performance is right around the corner for Zimmermann, there were no such indicators before Justin Verlander or Anibal Sanchez began their declines.
It is inevitable that a power pitcher in his mid-thirties will suffer a decline in performance, unless he somehow manages to reinvent himself. It’s possible Zimmermann may do that as he begins to lose velocity and crispness on his breaking pitches, but far from a lock. With a history of elbow surgery and over 1,000 innings to his name, there are no guarantees the Tigers will get $25 million worth of pitching per season from Jordan Zimmermann over the life of a five-year deal. Even without a decline in performance, the right-hander’s stuff does not seem to play well against the Tigers’ biggest divisional rival, the Kansas City Royals.
The Tigers are coming off a 74-87 season, and it should be evident that next year’s club will not be ready to vault back atop the American League Central standings. Patience is required. The Tigers got some very nice pieces in the Price and Cespedes trades. Allow those youngsters a shot at the big leagues before rushing into the free-agent market to sign another pitcher who will be pushing 35 by the end of his deal. More importantly, keep the draft pick that would be surrendered to sign Zimmermann and draft an elite college pitcher or hitter who will be ready for the big leagues in less than a year.
The Tigers got themselves into a mess by neglecting their farm system and continuously spending on free agents on the verge of entering the latter half of their careers. For the rebuilding process to be a success, the Tigers cannot go straight back to that way of doing business. While Jordan Zimmermann seems like an attractive target, it would be best for the Tigers to pass.