So the Tigers went out and added Jordan Zimmermann for five years and $110 million, removing any and all doubt that they would be going for a division title again in 2016. Assuming Zimmermann isn't playing this first year at a discount, that means the Tigers have $126 million invested in just six players for the coming season, and a projected payroll of around $180 million. That would break the team's Opening Day payroll record that they set just this year.
You kind of have to admire Mike Illitch and the Tigers, don't you? They simply refuse to accept that things like payroll limitations exist. Or aging curves. They simply keep adding pieces and expect to be competitive year after year. And why not? Until 2015, it's worked pretty damn well.
The problem, however, is that Zimmermann simply isn't enough to allow the Tigers to catch up with the Royals. The Tigers lost 87 games last year, their worst finish since 2008, but their Pythagorean record suggested they were more of a 92 loss club. This was with more than half a season of David Price, Joakim Soria, and Yoenis Cespedes helping them. Zimmermann's a fine pitcher, but he's simply not going to replace David Price's production, let alone improve on it. Last year, Price was worth 3.7 fWAR, a mark Zimmermann has only bested once in his seven seasons. No, adding Zimmermann doesn't make the Tigers better. It's treading water. And that's before we even account for Zimmermann switching over from the National League to the American.
It was also with injury problems keeping Miguel Cabrera, Jose Iglesias, Victor Martinez, Justin Verlander, and Anibal Sanchez on the sidelines and/or ineffective for much of the season that sunk the Tigers. An optimist looks at that and says that those players will get better. They'll be on the field more and their performance will improve. That's certainly possible, but feels exceptionally unlikely. Martinez is going to be 37. Iglesias's legs may break down again at any point. Sanchez has had a mysterious shoulder problem for the last two years, has seen his velocity dip. Moreover, his amazing 2013 is definitely an outlier in what has otherwise been just a competent career for a mid-rotation starter.
Don't get me wrong, Cabrera and Verlander (even with reduced velocity) are fantastic players. There simply isn't enough room for them to improve enough to catapult the Tigers back into the playoff hunt.
Assuming Illitch doesn't have another $20 million to spend on another arm (although, really, I guess I can't put it past him), the irony is that the key for Detroit to bounce back might just be Daniel Norris, one of the pitching prospects they got back from the Blue Jays for Price, and a rookie making the league minimum. Indeed, the Tigers' biggest problem, even worse than their atrocious bullpen, was their difficulty finding enough competent pitchers to fill out the back end of their rotation. Alfredo Simon was a bust. And the combined stylings of Shane Greene, Kyle Lobstein, Kyle Ryan, Matt Boyd, Buck Farmer, and Randy Wolf accounted for a 6.37 ERA in 329.1 innings. If a full season of Norris can prevent the Tigers from relying on sub-replacement level pitching, maybe Illitch won't be spending in vain.