Henning: Tigers need heavyweight like Zimmermann

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Jordan Zimmermann

Tell the Tigers they're getting older, not better. That they're becoming dangerously debt-ridden at the risk of delaying a probable reconstruction program.

They don't believe it.

They think they can win in 2016.

And maybe they can.

They're trying to power-punch their way back into the playoffs after everything collapsed last season, with the latest move, reportedly snagging Jordan Zimmermann, a top-shelf, right-handed pitcher who is at least a No. 2 starter on just about any big-league rotation.

The move can't be announced formally until Zimmermann passes a physical. But the Tigers aren't disputing news that a former stud for the Washington Nationals is bringing his arm and repertoire to Detroit.

The deal is long and expensive, if statistics made public are confirmed: five years, $110 million, for a man who turns 30 in May.

But given the market for blue-chip starters, Detroit got at a defensible price for a 200-innings pitcher who twice has made All-Star teams and been in the top 10 of Cy Young Award votes.

The Tigers needed an all-around boost in pitching in 2016. They required a heavyweight starter to join Justin Verlander and a presumably healthy Anibal Sanchez in creating a legitimate playoff rotation troika.

They also had to get serious about their bullpen, which two weeks ago spurred them to sensibly add Francisco Rodriguez as their 2016 closer.

Pitching first

Two down, and at least two more pitchers to go as Al Avila, the team's new general manager, crafts his first offseason roster.

He has said the Tigers will add two starters, although it's a near certainty the second hired hand will be less imposing and costly than Zimmermann. He likely will sign or trade for at least one more reliever, again, if early forecasts follow Avila's outlined script.

Pitching is the first commandment for a team with playoff plans. If the top three are healthy, and a fourth starter who can eat innings is added, Avila properly figures he can find his fifth man from the kiddies' stockpile: Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, Shane Greene, Buck Farmer, Kyle Lobstein, etc.

If he gets the mileage anticipated, then it's up to a reconstituted bullpen that's due for some breaks and for at least another new face, to avoid throwing the opposing team a second round of batting practice, as too often has been the case these past three years.

We'll see whether that mission is or isn't accomplished.

But it must be bolted down, the pitching side, because the Tigers are staring at some lengthening odds with their batting order. Age and injuries bashed Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez in 2015 and must become less of a factor in 2016 as Cabrera turns 33 and Martinez arrives at camp at age 37.

Yoenis Cespedes, last year's Opening Day left-fielder, has now, for all intents and purposes, been replaced by Cameron Maybin.

Other business

The Tigers will need everything – everything – to go right in 2016 to keep owner Mike Ilitch's championship drive alive. Pulling this off will be ticklish when their division friends, including the prize-winning Royals, either remain formidable or – in the case of the Indians and Twins – are becoming more dangerous as talented kids and arms slip into the picture.

Meanwhile, the Tigers are paying their usual double-retail for a pitcher as skilled as Zimmermann. Not only will he add $20 million-plus to a payroll that could reach or exceed $180 million, he forces the Tigers to forfeit their second draft pick in 2016.

That's fine with fans who figure a star like Zimmermann is worth acquiring when the draft pick is unknown and might be a washout.

Valid point. But the same fans who argue that draft picks are chaff tend also to become the most indignant when a farm system shows the wear-and-tear of forfeiting high draft picks, as the Tigers have done four times in the past six years.

There isn't likely to be a great deal of drama at Comerica Park ahead of spring camp. The Tigers aren't in position to add another big bat. They probably will add lower-profile pitchers to the rotation and to the bullpen.

Then, they'll begin making plans for spring, with next week's Winter Meetings at Nashville a safe bet to be among the quieter offseason sessions the Tigers have attended.

Those who believe Ilitch might yet authorize something gaudy for Alex Gordon or some such outfielder aren't being terribly realistic. Not at this point in 2015.

An owner with his passion and generosity annually can be counted on to add someone expensive who could help fulfill his and a town's World Series dream.

That player appears to be Zimmermann. The rest of a team's preseason shopping almost assuredly will be of the kind you're familiar with: a stop at the grocery store for a couple of inexpensive items.