Niyo: Zimmermann’s struggles harm Tigers’ bottom line

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — These games seem to take forever, yet they’re over quickly, with the Tigers’ bullpen stirring some nights almost as soon as the fans are settled in their seats.

The same can’t be said for some of the Tigers’ contracts, though. And as the team faces the prospect of six more weeks of this misery, that’s still the overriding fear for the franchise: The worst is yet to come?

Nowhere is that more apparent — or worrisome — than in the performance of veteran starter Jordan Zimmermann, who was roughed up again Wednesday in a 10-2 loss to the New York Yankees at Comerica Park.

Zimmermann was tagged for six runs in the first three innings and by the time Brad Ausmus decided he’d reached his limit, the final pitching line looked frighteningly familiar: five innings, nine hits, seven earned runs, two homers and one walk without a strikeout.

That’s three consecutive starts that Zimmermann has allowed seven runs, the first time that’s happened to a Tigers pitcher since 1935. And given his own history — from a five-year run as one of baseball’s most reliable starters in Washington to this brief, baffling tenure in Detroit — it’s almost impossible to put it in perspective.

“I’m scuffling right now,” Zimmermann said. “I’m scuffling bad. And obviously the last three outings, I did absolutely nothing to help this team win.”

He even shouldered the blame for Chad Bell’s postgame demotion to Toledo, personally apologizing to the 28-year-old rookie, who pitched four innings in relief Wednesday but was sent down as the Tigers were forced to make a move to relieve an overworked bullpen.

Money matters

Zimmermann’s far from the only pitcher struggling for this team right now. The Tigers have allowed more runs than any other American League team since the All-Star break.

But he’s the only one pitching like this while making the kind of money he does. (Well, except for Anibal Sanchez, I guess.) And if that isn’t weighing on his mind — and for a conscientious competitor like Zimmermann, how can it not? — it surely is a concern for management.

More: Zimmermann ‘scuffling bad,’ Tigers crushed again

The Tigers haven’t even gotten to the heart of the order, if you will, when it comes to Zimmermann’s contract. The 31-year-old right-hander is in the second year of a five-year, $110 million deal that late owner Mike Ilitch signed off on in 2015.

“I don’t care about the money,” Ilitch said at the time, laughing off any concerns about luxury-tax penalties or future payrolls as he made one final push for that elusive World Series title. “I want the best players.”

But what the Tigers have gotten from Zimmermann has been anything but his best. And after a sparkling first month in Detroit — five terrific starts in April 2016 that seem like a distant memory — it’s been mostly a disaster since. A neck injury helped derail that promising debut here last season, and this year he’s sporting a 6.11 ERA, the second-worst in the majors, along with a 1.54 WHIP, which ranks fifth-worst in the league.

“It’s just the command right now,” he said. “I have no clue where it went or what the problem is. But I’m gonna go back to the drawing board and keep searching. You know, that’s all you can do. And I’m hoping that maybe it’s just one little mechanical thing that clicks and I get back on track.”

Diamond hope

That’s what they’re all doing now, though: Hoping.

“I’d like to think it’s still in there, because we’ve seen it, we’ve seen flashes of it before,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “But like we were talking about with (Matt) Boyd and (Daniel) Norris being young guys (and) that at some point they have to deliver, the same applies to Jordan Zimmermann. He had a track record coming in, but at some point we need to see something similar to the old Zimmermann.”

More: Tigers' Romine wonders about his potential with 600 at-bats

As opposed to an old Zimmermann, which is what you wonder about now as you see the velocity dip and the command suffer. There are still flashes, as Ausmus said. And just a few weeks ago, after the trade deadline had come and gone, Zimmermann was talking about how “great” he was feeling after pitching seven scoreless innings against this same Yankees lineup, one of three consecutive seven-inning quality starts he strung together before this season went completely off the rails.

That’s one reason Ausmus has wondered aloud if there’s still a lingering issue with the neck, something restricting Zimmermann’s extension in his delivery. He says he asked him about it earlier this week, but Zimmermann insists he feels fine.

Right up until he releases the ball, that is, and is left wondering why it’s not going where it’s supposed to go. Or why the balls keep going over the outfield fence at such an alarming rate. (The 28 home runs he has allowed this season already are a career high.)

Zimmermann seems convinced there’s a mechanical fix to be found somewhere in the video clips or in a bullpen session, and he was busy looking for one immediately after his start Wednesday night.

“I think it’s something pretty small that once I figure it out it’s all gonna come back to me and I’m gonna have that command back,” he said.

But if that sounds like wishful thinking, reality sets in quickly, as in the next breath, Zimmermann adds, “I haven’t really had it this year. The slider wasn’t there for two months, and now the fastball has left me, too. … I wish I could put a finger on it, but I have no answers right now.”

Nor do the Tigers, obviously.

Zimmermann is only a few years removed from a top-five finish in the NL Cy Young voting, yet he isn’t even a replacement-level pitcher at the moment. He’s a negative WAR player this season, and after paying him $18 million in each of his first two years in Detroit, the Tigers still are on the hook for salaries of $24 million in 2018 and $25 million in 2019 and ’20.

And for a rebuilding team saddled with too many other bad contracts, his just might prove be the worst. Both because of what we’ve seen, and what we haven’t yet.