DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers have no shortage of important decisions to make this month ahead of Opening Day. Which minor league team will top prospects be assigned to? Who will win the starting jobs at third base and shortstop? Should they choose experience or youth in the bullpen?
Let’s add one more to the mix: It’s time for the Tigers to move on from Jordan Zimmermann, at least in the starting rotation.
Why Zimmermann is still in the rotation
We don’t need to spend much time on this. Everyone knows the 25 million reasons Zimmermann has lasted this long as a starter.
The Tigers signed Zimmermann to a five-year, $110 million deal before the 2016 season. At the time, he was coming off five straight seasons with a FIP below 4.00, a WHIP below 1.2 and a WAR above 2.5. In total, Zimmermann was worth 19.1 WAR during his five full seasons with the Washington Nationals.
He was entering his age 30 season when he signed with Detroit, so the Tigers figured he could be another borderline ace in a staff that included Justin Verlander, Michael Fulmer and Anibal Sanchez.
Last four seasons
The decline for Zimmermann was immediate. He’s never posted a FIP below 4.40 or a WHIP below 1.25 in Detroit. His best WAR the last four seasons was in 2018, when he was worth three-fifths of a win more than a replacement-level player.
Zimmermann has allowed 317 earned runs in 508.2 innings with a low strikeout rate, a 4.86 FIP and a 1.431 WHIP over four seasons in Detroit. His attitude and desire to improve have never been questioned, but the results simply haven’t been deserving of a rotation spot.
You might ask why it matters who makes up the rotation for a team that has no intentions of making a playoff run. It’s true, the Tigers won’t be good this season.
But a starting rotation spot has never been more valuable in this organization.
The Tigers have an overabundance of pitchers with upside who need to make starts every fifth game. (We did a full breakdown of which starters should start the season with the Tigers, the Toledo Mud Hens and the Erie SeaWolves. Click here to read that story.)
It’s a great problem to have: too many good pitchers to fit into the starting rotations. Between Matt Boyd, Spencer Turnbull, Daniel Norris, Ivan Nova, Tarik Skubal, Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Alex Faedo, Joey Wentz, Beau Burrows, Kyle Funkhouser, Anthony Castro, Elvin Rodriguez, Wilkel Hernandez, Franklin Perez, Paul Richan and the dozens of others in the lower levels, cuts have to be made.
Some pitchers will end up as relievers. Others won’t make a roster.
Basically, the Tigers can only audition so many players as regular starters this season, and wasting one of those spots just because a player will make $25 million doesn’t make any sense, especially since he’ll get paid either way.
The Tigers have half a dozen exciting starting pitching prospects. Beyond that, there are a handful of young players who have showed promise in the lower levels.
Then, there’s Tyler Alexander.
Alexander is not considered a prospect. He’s never been included in the team’s top 30, and the excitement when he takes the mound pales in comparison to appearances by Skubal, Mize and Manning.
But Alexander showed some positive signs during an audition last season, and that’s why the Tigers should at least give him a chance.
While bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen, Alexander posted a 4.15 FIP in 53.2 innings while striking out 47 batters. His walk rate is extremely low and makes his 7.9 K/9 play up. He averaged nearly seven strikeouts for every walk -- an exceptional ratio.
Alexander gave up way too many hits -- 68 in 53.2 innings. His 9% swinging strike rate won’t turn heads. But he was good just as often as not when asked to start for the Tigers.
In eight starts, Alexander allowed two runs or fewer four times and never allowed more than four earned runs. While the hit totals were high at times, that’s not a very predictive stat, and Alexander might have been a bit unlucky in that regard.
Compare Alexander’s starts to Zimmermann’s. Alexander allowed fewer than three runs in half of his appearances and never surrendered more than four earned runs. Zimmermann allowed five or more earned runs eight times in 23 starts and had five starts of four earned runs.
Zimmermann went at least five innings and allowed fewer than three earned runs eight times in 23 starts -- or 35% of the time. Alexander did so in half of his starts.
He also showed some promise in long relief. When asked to take over in the fourth inning Aug. 21 at Houston, Alexander held the Astros to just one run on three hits while striking out three over four innings. About two weeks later, he held the Oakland Athletics scoreless for three innings, striking out five and allowing just one hit. Four days later, he struck out four Yankees in four innings, allowing two hits and two runs.
Combine those three outings -- all against playoff teams -- and Alexander allowed just three runs on six hits and one walk while striking out 12 batters in 11 innings. He held three of the top five offenses in the American League to a .560 OPS and helped the Tigers win all three games.
Remember: Zimmermann’s best season in Detroit yielded a 0.6 WAR. In just 13 total appearances last season, Alexander finished with a 1.0 WAR.
Tigers need sense of urgency
No, Alexander isn’t a budding MLB star. But he’s shown enough promise to warrant a look.
On one hand, the Tigers could choose a 33-year-old starter who won’t be on the roster after 2020. Or, they could take a chance on a 25-year-old under team control until 2026.
The Tigers don’t have time to waste. This summer, Faedo, Mize, Manning and Skubal might be knocking on the door of the major leagues. At worst, they should crack the MLB rotation to start 2021. There’s a chance Wentz will be in the mix, too.
If Boyd and Turnbull are staples in the rotation going forward, there are only three spots available. That doesn’t sound like a picture that includes Alexander, does it?
Detroit would be making a mistake if it doesn’t at least find out whether or not Alexander has what it takes to be a regular member of the rotation, and 2020 might be the last season with the luxury of low expectations and actual openings.
If Alexander fails, so what? It’s not like the Tigers were getting any production out of that spot, anyway, and wins and losses don’t really matter in 2020. At least they would know for sure that Alexander isn’t a starter going forward.
But if they stick with Zimmermann, they rob themselves of the non-zero chance Alexander could be a decent MLB starter.
Isn’t the point of a rebuild to maximize the chances to find players who could contribute to the next competitive team? This opportunity is right in front of the Tigers, and they shouldn’t let money get in the way.