Red Sox free agency: Jordan Zimmermann deal shapes market


Early free agent deals have begun to shape the market for starting pitchers, creating a ripple effect that impacts the pursuit of the ace that the Boston Red Sox desire.

Cross one free agent starting pitching option off the list. CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reports that the Detroit Tigers reached an agreement over the weekend with Jordan Zimmermann, leaving one less potential ace left on the table for the Boston Red Sox.

While the supply and demand nature of free agency suggests that dwindling options would make it more difficult for the Red Sox to find a top of the rotation starter of their own, Zimmermann’s signing may not necessarily be a bad thing for Boston.

First of all, Zimmermann was never a top target for the Red Sox. He’s a good pitcher – a two time All-Star with a pair of top-7 finishes in the NL Cy Young voting on his resume, who has averaged 3.9 WAR over the last five seasons. There’s nothing wrong with those accolades, yet Zimmermann still seems like a second-tier ace in a market with more desirable options.

It’s also worth noting the risk that comes with signing Zimmermann, who is coming off a season in which he posted the highest ERA (3.66) and FIP (3.75) since he became a mainstay in the Washington Nationals rotations in 2011. His velocity was down and he struggled to adjust to throwing more offspeed pitches, leading to his strikeout rate declining to 7.3 from the career-high 8.2 that he posted a year ago.

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Was 2015 a blip on the radar for a pitcher that has previously shown ace potential? It seems like it’s too early for the 29-year old to be hitting his decline phase already, but he’s also at an age where his velocity is unlikely to return if the decline wasn’t injury related. His fastball is down nearly one full MPH from it’s peak two years ago, so if anything it will only continue to drop. Perhaps Zimmermann will adjust to his declining velocity and reliance on more offspeed pitches, but it’s an expensive gamble to make.

Throw in the fact that the Zimmermann declined a qualifying offer from the Nationals, which means it would have cost the Red Sox their first-round draft pick in order to sign him, and it’s clear why he wasn’t one of their top targets. Detroit’s first-round pick is protected, so the compensation loss for them isn’t as significant.

Zimmermann’s 5-year, $110 million deal will look like a bit of an overpay if he pitches at his 2015 level instead of the 2011-2014 version and a massive overpay if he declines further. He’ll still be useful to the Tigers even if he settles in as a middle of the rotation starter that averages 3.0 WAR per season, but the Red Sox already have plenty of middle to back of the rotation starters. They need a clear ace, but it’s unclear if Zimmermann still is one.

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As long as the Red Sox weren’t counting on Zimmermann as a potential fallback plan, his signing in Detroit can be perceived as good news. For one, it eliminates the Tigers as a potential landings spot for David Price, in case Detroit had any notion of bringing back the ace they traded away at this year’s deadline. Likewise, the Toronto Blue Jays signing of J.A. Happ appears to fill their rotation, likely taking them out of the running for Price. If two teams that Price is already familiar with aren’t competing for his services, that has to help Boston’s chances of luring in the biggest fish in the pond.

The downside for the Red Sox is that Zimmermann’s contract helps set the market for the top available starters. If he is able to land a $22 million per year deal, what are guys like Price and Zack Greinke worth? Not that we should have been expecting any bargains, but those elite options could easily fetch north of $25 million per year and possible approach $30 million.

More troubling is what this means if the Red Sox strikeout with both of those top options. Johnny Cueto seems like a reasonable backup plan, but he’s not settling for less than what Zimmermann got. reported that Cueto already turned down a 6-year, $120 million offer from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Either Cueto really didn’t want to pitch in the desert or he feels he can get a better offer, which the Zimmermann deal suggests he can.

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The list of available aces has dropped by one, but so has the list of suitors. Since Zimmermann and some of the other lower-tier starters would not have been acceptable options for the Red Sox, it seems to have helped their pursuit of the targets they covet most. It also may mean that those other options just became a bit more expensive.