Henning: Tigers’ win-now edict leads to cash conundrum

Lynn Henning, The Detroit News
Tigers pitcher Jordan Zimmermann has a 6.28 ERA heading into Thursday's start against the Orioles at Comerica Park.

No matter if it was Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Victor Martinez, Jordan Zimmermann or Justin Upton, the Tigers’ creed was steady these past five years.

Sign stars and superstars to new contracts or extensions in a full-throttle push to win. This year. And for subsequent seasons at Comerica Park.

Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, before he died in February, was the chief voice and sole benefactor in authorizing contracts in the hundreds of millions of dollars. He also knew some of those deals could at some point blow up. Or, at the very least, cause anxiety if production didn’t match expenditures.

In other words, he knew there could be a Sanchez crisis. He realized there were risks in offering a free-agent pitcher such as Zimmermann a five-year deal worth $110 million.

He was aware there could be a time, as there is in May 2017, that his largesse, and/or a front office’s judgment, would be questioned or even derided.

Sanchez has pitched in 10 games for the Tigers this season and has a ghastly 10.13 ERA. He has allowed nine home runs and nine walks in 18 innings.

He is owed $21.8 million through next year, money that fully explains why the Tigers won’t yet release a pitcher who turned 33 in February.

They are scared stiff a right-hander who can still throw a fastball at 92 or 93 mph will find something approximating his old self. If he does it with another club, the chagrin of paying an enormous sum to pink-slip a man pitching capably for an enemy would be even more unbearable than some of Sanchez’s recent outings.

Zimmermann’s situation is decidedly different, even if his numbers are no more comforting: 6.28 ERA and 1.65 WHIP as he prepares today for his eighth start of 2017, against the Baltimore Orioles at Comerica Park.

Zimmermann is somewhat baffling. His fastball has tended to run in the 92-93 range, which is pretty much where he was for the Nationals in 2015. There was a dip later that season. But an analysis of his game-by-game efforts shows he was essentially on track in his final start of the year and that, at age 29, there was little to worry about.

What has changed for Zimmermann — apart from a neck injury that destroyed his 2016 season in Detroit — is his slider. Inspect the horizontal/vertical movement graphs that BrooksBaseball.net’s Pitch/fx tool meticulously constructs and you see variations. Those gaps help explain why a pitcher who must have at least three effective pitches working during any game has so often been pitching on the road’s shoulder.

On the brighter side, it hints at why his starts should, a week before he turns 31, perhaps begin falling more in line with Zimmermann’s past work.

Tigers general manager Al Avila was asked this week about each pitcher. Why was Sanchez being retained, beyond the obvious fact his contract is politically and fiscally the size of an elephant? And what is up with Zimmermann, who during 2018-20 is owed $74 million from that $110-million deal?

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“Obviously, we’re working with him very hard,” Avila said of Zimmermann, who was Avila’s and the Tigers’ choice to sign in 2015 over two other free-agent pitchers, Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija. “We feel he is very close to getting back to his normal self.”

On the matter of Sanchez, Avila said, “We feel he’s a work in progress. Unfortunately, the situation he’s in, doesn’t allow him to get consistent work. Some days he looks good, some days not so good, because of the infrequent work he gets.

“The other day in Cleveland, he was lights out (May 1, two innings, one hit, three strikeouts). Then, another inning he goes out there and gives up a couple of home runs after he’s been off for nine days.

“With him, it’s more of a work in progress.”

Or, it might be said, Sanchez is a work in regression. There’s a conundrum playing out here.

Dead money

The reason Sanchez is not pitching more regularly is because the Tigers are fearful he will be bombed. He allowed 59 home runs in the 2015-16 seasons and in 2017 is well ahead of his previous frightful pace.

Anibal Sanchez

The Tigers already are paying $13.5 million in dead money to two pitchers signed by Avila and his staff who this spring were released: Mike Pelfrey and Mark Lowe. They don’t care to make headlines by writing Sanchez a $21.8-million severance check.

At the same time, they are trying to win. Don’t be surprised if Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, who must try and find a spot for Sanchez without wrecking a game, sees a contradiction here.

What the Tigers continue to hope, maybe fancifully, is that a man still relatively young with stuff good enough at moments to strike out big-league hitters can yet find his way. They hope so not only because he is one-seventh of a bullpen that can’t afford useless baggage. It’s also because, if Sanchez were to straighten out, they’d have a fine back-up man for their rotation or even — yes — trade bait, as far-fetched as such a thought is on May 18.

An analysis of each man’s signing, or extension, confirms how Ilitch’s generosity can cut two ways.

Calculated risk

Sanchez was a free agent in 2012 a few months after the Tigers had gotten him in a heavy deadline deal with the Marlins. That autumn, Ilitch conferred with his brass: general manager Dave Dombrowski and his allies, as well as manager Jim Leyland. All parties were in a win-now mode. And they had reason to be — months later, the Tigers probably came within a blown eighth-inning at Fenway Park in the 2013 ALCS from winning that year’s World Series championship.

Sanchez, though, was risky. And expensive. He had some past shoulder issues that might again crop up. He also was on the small side for a starter (generously listed at 6-foot).

But the Tigers wanted a World Series parade, and having Sanchez in their rotation would be worth, in the consortium’s view, paying him $80 million over five seasons.

The contract could easily have been a steal. Sanchez has had no serious physical issues. And having just turned 33, he is young enough to be pitching at least somewhere in the vicinity of his peak years.

But it hasn’t been the case since he began heaving home-run pitches in 2015. His ERA jumped from an American Legaue-best 2.57 in 2013, the first year of the contract, to 3.43 in 2014 to 4.99 in 2015 and 5.87 last season. Now it sits at nearly double the ugly 2016 mark.

The first choice

Zimmermann’s situation offers more realistic hope, even assurances, that he’ll find smoother air and settle into a stable rotation slot.

That’s important, not only because Ausmus needs Zimmermann to work quality innings that are gentle on his bullpen, but because Avila and the Ilitch family owe him $74 million beyond this season.

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In keeping with Mike Ilitch’s championship dream, the Tigers still were on a win-now trek in the autumn of 2015. They had allowed Max Scherzer, a year earlier, to sign with the Nationals when he turned down Detroit’s $144-million offer and now needed a front-line starter to match with Verlander.

They had three primary options:

■Cueto, then 29, had wrapped up a fine career with the Reds and after a July trade had helped the Royals win that year’s World Series, even if he had been dealing with some earlier elbow issues and hadn’t pitched particularly well in his latter months at Kansas City.

■Samardzija was another hard-thrower and potential Tigers investment 18 months ago. But there were hangups. He was two months from turning 31 and had pitched so-so for the White Sox in 2015.

■Zimmermann seemed to the Tigers to clearly be a safer and more exciting choice.

They had scouted him down the stretch in 2015 and weren’t concerned about alleged velocity drops that BrooksBaseball.net confirms were nothing dramatic. They also looked quite astute early last year when Zimmermann allowed all of two earned runs in five April starts.

But in May, neck issues surfaced and Zimmermann’s season became something of a mess. He made 13 more starts.

While his health has returned, Zimmermann’s old pitching prowess hasn’t in 2017, not with the consistency the Tigers — and Zimmermann — believe soon will arrive.

“It’s taken a while to get back into rhythm, build his arm strength, and trust everything,” Tigers catcher Alex Avila told the News after Zimmermann’s last start, against the Angels. “But I can picture it. As the season goes on, there’s going to be a stretch where he’s solid.”

Other issues

They are not a team’s only issues, Zimmermann and Sanchez. Francisco Rodriguez last week lost his closer’s job and is now trying to work into some kind of trustworthy role.

Victor Martinez, who will make $18 million this season and another $18 million in 2018, is batting .277, with two home runs and a .719 OPS.

Miguel Cabrera, the seemingly invincible man, is batting .248 with a .742 OPS. He is on the hook for a minimum of $184 million after this season.

It can make for some anxious days for a team and its fans.

They didn’t care to think of those giddy, Ilitch-approved player investments as potential jail sentences if, down the road, performances should slip while age accrued.

And, so, a team and a town hope the grizzled guys can catch fire and deliver results commensurate with their dollars.

To think otherwise isn’t, at the moment, a happy thought.