Tigers ink Zimmermann to five-year deal
Avila says free-agent righty was Detroit's 'top target' this offseason
DETROIT -- Al Avila's first offseason as the Tigers' general manager featured baseball's first major signing off the deep free-agent starting-pitching market. Detroit announced Monday that it inked right-handed starter Jordan Zimmermann to a five-year contract and introduced him at an afternoon news conference.
"One of the biggest things is that they had me as a No. 1 target," Zimmermann said. "I was a second and a third option for others. I wanted to sign early. I knew what my value was. I know this is a great place to pitch.
"It means a lot. For these guys to want me that much, I'm excited. I'm happy to get this jersey on Opening Day and get to know the guys."
The deal is worth roughly $110 million, according to reports. Zimmermann underwent Tommy John surgery in 2009, but he has become a model of durability since then, having delivered at least 32 starts and 195 innings in each of the past four seasons with the Nationals.
"This is one area where -- when our scouts were here and we had the year-end meetings and the names were on the board -- Jordan was our top target," Avila said. "This is really a dream come true. In this situation, I don't know if it's rare or not. He was No. 1 on everyone's list. It's pretty reassuring.
"Part of the reason it got done quickly was because this is where he wanted to play. That's an advantage. We just love this guy. ... People say he isn't a No. 1 starter. We felt he is at the top end of a rotation, a horse who will take the ball and battle.
"The fact that he is a workhorse is one part of it. There's a competitive nature, and he also has the leadership, character and work ethic."
Zimmermann rejected a qualifying offer from the Nationals and thus will require Draft-pick compensation. However, the Tigers' finish this past season landed them the ninth overall selection in the 2016 Draft, a protected pick. Instead, Detroit will give up its second-round selection, though Washington will still receive a compensation pick near the end of the first round. If the Tigers sign another free agent who rejected a qualifying offer, they'll give up their third-round pick, and so on. The Tigers received a compensation pick this year after the Nats signed Max Scherzer last offseason.
Zimmermann fits the Tigers' desire for a workhorse starter to fit in between Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez in their rotation, essentially filling the void left by David Price's departure last summer. He also sits at the head of the tier of free-agent starters that Detroit targeted when the offseason began, just below former Cy Young Award winners Price and Zack Greinke. Avila not only found his target, he moved quickly to land Zimmermann, beating a bevy of Major League clubs in search of starting pitching.
Beyond his health, Zimmermann was one of the steadier performers on a Nationals squad that carried World Series expectations entering Spring Training this past season, before losing out to the Mets in the National League East. Zimmermann went 13-10 with a 3.66 ERA in 33 starts in 2015, topping 200 innings for the second time in three years.
For two seasons before that, Zimmermann was pitching in elite company, sharing the NL lead with 19 wins in 2013 while going 33-14 combined in the two-year stretch and receiving NL Cy Young Award votes. He fell a bit off that level in '15; his 3.75 Fielding Independent Pitching and 9.1 hits per nine innings were both his highest rates since returning from surgery, while his 24 home runs allowed marked a career high. However, Zimmermann's 4.21 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 164 strikeouts were the second-best marks of his career. He has transitioned from a ground-ball pitcher to a virtually even ratio of groundouts to flyouts while averaging around seven to eight strikeouts per nine innings throughout his career.
Between that consistency and a relatively young age, Zimmermann fit the profile of pitcher the Tigers have been seeking to slot in their rotation. No pitcher with Tommy John surgery in his history has garnered a $100 million contract, but Zimmermann's track record made him a prime candidate to become the first.
Avila, who filled outfielder and closer needs on the trade market just over a week ago, has said since season's end that he's hoping to sign two starting pitchers. Trades for Francisco Rodriguez and Cameron Maybin filled the aforementioned needs without spending at free-agent prices, keeping payroll space available for the Tigers to make a big move.
Now, the Tigers could find themselves heading to the Winter Meetings (Dec. 7-10) with only a lower-rotation starter and setup reliever left on their shopping list. They could also head into next season with two starting pitchers -- Zimmermann and Verlander -- under contract for at least the next four seasons, Sanchez under contract for two more years, plus Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd under team control for potentially six more seasons. The combination could effectively end Detroit's rotation shuffling of the past couple years, which included one-year stops for Price and Alfredo Simon.
Zimmermann is a Wisconsin native -- he pitched in college at Wisconsin-Stevens Point -- who makes his offseason home there. That led to speculation he could look to pitch in the Midwest to be closer to family, even if it meant leaving the NL for the first time in his career. With Milwaukee about an hour-long flight from Detroit, Zimmermann's new pitching home would be close to his roots.
"For a kid from a small town in central Wisconsin, stepping on the mound and competing on the Major League level is a dream come true," Zimmermann wrote in a season-ending message thanking Nationals fans for their support over the years. "It's a dream, yet also a responsibility that I don't take lightly."
Fantasy spin | Fred Zinkie (@FredZinkieMLB)
Zimmermann undoubtedly is a workhorse, but he may fall short of No. 2 starter status in shallow formats next season. The right-hander dealt with reduced fastball velocity in 2015, and he posted his highest ERA (3.66) and WHIP (1.20) since '10. Most of Zimmermann's woes came on the road, where he recorded the third-highest ERA (4.87) among qualified NL hurlers. Looking ahead to 2016: The 29-year-old should enjoy working in pitcher-friendly Comerica Park, but he will be challenged to reverse some of his negative trends from last year while adjusting to a schedule filled with deep American League lineups.