Tigers, Zimmermann are early market match

Right-hander was Detroit's No. 1 target from onset of free agency

December 1st, 2015

DETROIT -- Jordan Zimmermann knew what his free-agent market value was, knew where he was wanted, and knew where he'd like to pitch. The right-hander didn't need to wait for David Price and Zack Greinke to sign to figure that out.

"I didn't want to wait until January into February," Zimmermann said on Monday at Comerica Park upon signing his five-year deal with the Tigers. "I wanted to sign early."

Tigers ink Zimmermann to five-year deal

The Tigers, too, knew who they wanted in their search for starting pitching, and first-year general manager Al Avila knew what he felt comfortable spending to get it. Avila knew he could wait until later in the offseason to see who fell through the cracks and could be grabbed for a value, but he didn't want to mess around.

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"Our scouts, [Zimmermann] was the No. 1 guy on their list, and our analytical department was on the same page," Avila said.

It was arguably a match from the first day of free agency, when Tigers assistant GM John Westhoff called Zimmermann's agent, Mark Pieper. It took a heavy week of negotiation, including a holiday weekend on the phones, but it culminated in a five-year, $110 million deal that opens the free-agent shopping in a deep starting pitching market. Whether it sets a standard or not, it sets up the front of Detroit's rotation for the foreseeable future.

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"It's very rare when you say to the owner, 'This is the guy that we're going to try to get,' and you get him," Avila said.

It was a big enough get that owner Mike Ilitch was on hand for the announcement. It was a quick enough match that the rest of baseball was watching the announcement, with the Winter Meetings -- normally the spark that gets the free-agent market going -- still a week away.

Effectively, Avila's first major free-agent deal was the execution of the plan he set out all along. He said at season's end that while the Tigers wouldn't be in play for top free agents such as Price or Greinke, they'd be targeting the next group of starters. What Avila didn't say at the time was that Zimmermann topped the group in their evaluations.

"The reason he was our main target is because we just love this guy," Avila said. "We've seen him pitch over the years. There's people out there saying he's not a No. 1 starter, he's a No. 2 starter. But the difference between a No. 1 or 2 starter could be on any given day. And we felt he's a top-end-of-the-rotation kind of guy, a horse on the mound who's going to give you 200 innings. He's going to take the ball all the time and he's going to battle out there."

The numbers, and the consistency, were obvious. Zimmermann delivered at least 32 starts and 195 innings in each of the last four years with the Nationals, and at least 3.0 Wins Above Replacement for five straight seasons. His 18.6 WAR since 2011 ranks 12th among all Major League pitchers, and third among free agents behind Price and Greinke.

Beyond the numbers, Avila said, was a level of character that Tigers evaluators felt would play well on a pitching staff trying to work in several young hurlers.

"You wouldn't believe how many messages I've gotten from other players that have played with him over the years, about what kind of guy he is," Avila said. "He's a quiet leader, and he leads by example. So there's a lot of good qualities. It's not only his ability to pitch and win games, but also the type of person and character that he brings to the Detroit Tigers, which is what we're trying to do."

When the time came to try to sign him, they didn't mess around in expressing interest. That stuck with Zimmermann.

"One of the biggest things was they had me as a top target," Zimmermann said. "Other teams that were out there, I was the second or third option."

Zimmermann could have waited for those teams to sort out their options, to see who might be interested after Price or Greinke sign. But he had no guarantee how long that might take, and no assurance that he'd be as comfortable with the remaining teams as he was with Detroit. Eventually, Zimmermann decided there was no sense waiting.

"We knew what my value was," Zimmermann said. "I just thought it was a good fit, a big ballpark, great place to pitch. For the most part, we got the deal done pretty quick, and I can get ready for Spring Training."

The Tigers were in talks with other free-agent pitchers, Avila said, and looked into trades. Once the two sides entered negotiations, however, they were the sole focus. Zimmermann will make $18 million in each of the first two seasons of the deal, followed by $24 million in 2018, $25 million in '19 and another $25 million in '20. For purposes of determining payroll for luxury tax purposes, MLB counts the average annual value, meaning $22 million per season.

For a pitcher who won't turn 30 until May, the Tigers could handle the contract, the largest for a pitcher who has had Tommy John surgery as a pro. They know the risk, they say, and they looked into his medical history. For a franchise that took chances on long-term deals for Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez and Anibal Sanchez -- injury risks all -- this was one they could handle.

"We had his medicals before we did this final check, which is about as thorough as you can get," Avila said. "We were very comfortable as far as his durability moving forward. With any pitcher that you sign, you're going to have risk. It's just part of the nature of the business."

To set the tone for the market early is unnatural for the Tigers. But in this case, the team that rose to contention on late offseason deals, snapping up players who fell through the free-agent cracks, didn't wait for its big move to try to rise again.