Here’s what you need to know about new Tiger Zimmermann

Jordan Zimmermann signed a five-year deal with the Detroit Tigers.

Starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann signed a five-year deal with the Detroit Tigers.

The Detroit Tigers’ starting rotation has been churning for the past few years. Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez have been the only constants. Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Doug Fister, and Drew Smyly gave way to David Price, Alfredo Simon, and Shane Greene last year.

And now they’ve given way to new free agents Jordan Zimmermann and Mike Pelfrey, as well as Daniel Norris, who was acquired in the trade that sent Price packing last summer.

New Detroit general manager Al Avila said he was going to get two new starters to join the young Norris and the two holdovers in the rotation, and he has. One is a very solid acquisition and the other is just a placeholder, and as my colleague Bruce Markusen pointed out, a bit of an odd choice.

New man Zimmermann is a workhorse

Signed at $110 million for five years, the thirty-year-old Zimmermann will fit nicely into the rotation. He’s fully recovered from Tommy John, and with that major elbow surgery now very much behind them, he’s matured into a very consistent and reliable workhorse. Over the last four seasons he ranks ninth among all MLB starters in ERA, and he’s averaged 203 innings per season.

Zimmermann is a pitch-to-contact guy. He doesn’t strike out a ton of hitters, and his walk rate over the last two seasons is fourth among all pitchers with 300 innings or more, behind only Phil Hughes, Bartolo Colon, and Hisashi Iwakuma.

He’s a complete pitcher. He was tenth in MLB last year in defensive runs saved by pitchers, the best fielding metric available. In addition, only half of the fourteen steal attempts against him were successful.

Zimmermann has a good slider and curveball to go with his fastball but he lacks an effective change-up. Last year his ERA jumped a little, but it’s not clear whether that was a fluke or a warning sign. He’s lost a tick or two off his fastball, but since he’s not a flamethrower (his heater clocks in the low-90s), it’s not clear that that’s a significant problem. The question is whether the righthander is starting a decline—but most observers feel it’s just the opposite: he’s learned how to pitch better and matured as a well-rounded pitcher, much like Verlander. I rate this as a very smart acquisition by Avila. The Tigers are no longer spending outrageous sums, but shopping wisely.

Pelfrey is a warm body

Signing Pelfrey, however, is more like scrounging through the bargain bin. He came cheap for good reason: he’s never been more than an average pitcher, and usually he’s been worse than that. He had two decent but by no means overpowering seasons for the New York Mets in 2008 and 2010. Other than that, he’s pretty much stunk. His career ERA is 4.52, his ERA-plus is 89 (league average is 100). At age thirty-one, he’s unlikely to be anything more than a guy who can eat up innings. But Brad Ausmus will need to have his bullpen ready on the days Pelfrey is on the mound.

Pelfrey is simply holding down the fifth spot in the rotation until it’s clear that prospects Matt Boyd or Buck Farmer is ready to step into it—or, even less likely, until Shane Greene somehow regains his junk-ball magic. Zimmermann gives the Tigers two solid starters to go with the question marks surrounding Sanchez and Norris. Sanchez is a very good pitcher when he’s right; last year he wasn’t, so that’s a cause for worry. Southpaw Norris is a tremendous prospect who looks very promising, and there’s no reason to suspect he’ll regress except his age—at twenty-two, anything can happen. Boyd doesn’t look ready yet, and should probably spend another full season in the minors honing his assortment of lefty offerings. Farmer and a couple of other potential but not very exciting prospects have an outside chance to step up.

Pelfrey is basically cheap insurance. Here’s hoping he won’t be the next coming of Alfredo Simon, who led the team in innings pitched last season (yes, really). If that happens again with Pelfrey playing the Simon role, it’ll be another long summer for the Tigers.

Avila gets one A and one F on my scorecard. Why didn’t he go after fan favorite Doug Fister? Returning him to the team would have been a great move to shore up the back end of the rotation.