The reason: The Tigers entered the offseason in dire need of pitching, and first-year general manager Al Avila was up front about his desire to bolster the club’s rotation. He did that Sunday by landing one of the market’s top free agents in the 29-year-old right-hander. Zimmermann, who has a career 3.32 ERA spanning seven seasons in the majors, might not have been among the premier targets like Zack Greinke and David Price, but he’s not far behind. The Auburndale, Wisconsin, native is just one year removed from finishing fifth in the National League Cy Young Award balloting. He was 13-10 with a 3.66 ERA last season for the Washington Nationals, and according to ESPN Stats and Information, his 4.09 strikeout-to-walk ratio over the past seven years ranks fifth among starters who have amassed at least 1,000 innings in that span, exceeded only by Cliff Lee, Dan Haren, Madison Bumgarner and Greinke.
The impact: The addition of Zimmermann immediately improves a Tigers rotation that was in need of an upgrade after an abysmal 2015 season. Zimmermann doesn’t come cheap, however, and that is significant for two reasons: It indicates team owner Mike Ilitch is still willing to loosen the purse strings to field a competitive team, but it also likely means the Tigers may have to opt for more cost-effective options if they are still in the market to add an additional starter and bullpen arm, as has been indicated by Avila throughout free agency. Avila has been aggressive in his first winter as GM, landing closer Francisco Rodriguez and outfielder Cameron Maybin in a pair of trades following the GM meetings earlier this month. But the Zimmermann signing is Avila’s biggest move to date, and it’s one that’s already eliciting excitement from both the Tigers’ fan base and the team’s biggest stars. The Tigers’ resident ace, Justin Verlander, chimed in almost immediately after the news broke:
— Justin Verlander (@JustinVerlander) November 29, 2015
There is always risk with a five-year deal, especially considering Zimmermann is six years removed from Tommy John surgery and experienced a dip in velocity this past season, but he will also bring both experience and a superlative work ethic to the Tigers’ clubhouse, with one major league scout describing him as a “plus makeup guy and competitor.”
The Tigers’ rotation, as it currently stands, is expected to be comprised of Verlander, Zimmermann, Anibal Sanchez and Daniel Norris, with the fifth spot still to be determined either by another free-agent signing or an internal option.
Beyond the Tigers, it should be interesting to see what sort of ripple effect the Zimmermann signing will have on the rest of the market. Despite the breadth of talent available, especially in the caliber of both starting pitchers and closers, it has been relatively quiet leading up to the annual winter meetings, which will commence next week in Nashville, Tennessee. Zimmermann’s signing could be the first domino to fall, spurring action from other executives around the league.