Picture two blimps flying over a ballpark. They're heading right for each other. Each blimp is displaying a message in blinking lights.
The message on one blimp reads, "Time is a jerk and everyone gets old."
The message on the other blimp reads, "Boy, good baseball players sure are expensive."
On the ground, in the middle of some earlier blimp wreckage, you have Ruben Amaro with singed hair and smoke comically wafting from him, like Wile E. Coyote after a bad Acme shipment.
If the first goal of the offseason is to build the perfect baseball team, the second one is to keep those two blimps away from each other. Yet they always, always, always fall back into a collision course. Over the weekend, the Tigers agreed to pay Jordan Zimmermann $22 million a year for the next five seasons. He'll turn 30 next year, which means the Tigers will pay a combined $80 million to two 36-year-olds and a 33-year-old Tommy John survivor in 2019. Which is to say the Tigers are playing a dangerous game with their aging, expensive roster. They have been for a while.
Don't bring up the dreaded Phillies comp just yet, though. The Tigers might not be in the best spot, blimp-wise, but Zimmermann was the move they had to make. There's just no point in a complete Tigers rebuild, which means it still makes sense to throw money at the problem and see if that helps.
Don't get me wrong, the Tigers are probably hosed. If not this coming season, then shortly after. They're old and expensive players will get older without getting cheaper. But they weren't going to trade a $30 million-per-year Miguel Cabrera for Carlos Correa, so they had no choice but to add on. The parallel from before last year would be the Texas Rangers, who decided to trade for Yovani Gallardo instead of completely rebuild. It looked like this at the time:
Darvish and Beltre (are the only players the Rangers can trade). A rebuild would get the Rangers four or five shiny prospects, some of whom might actually work out, but it would leave them with a team that's filled with enough contributors to make them want players like Darvish and Beltre. They can't rebuild.
If the Tigers rebuilt, they would get prospects for Ian Kinsler. They would get prospects for J.D. Martinez. Then they would look around and find players like Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, who weren't going anywhere, surrounded by an extra couple prospects. That's not exciting. It would speed up the eventual roster apocalypse just to get those extra couple prospects, and it would come at the expense of any remaining chance they might have had in 2016.
Don't forget the Tigers are in a much better spot than they could have been. Just think if they had signed Max Scherzer to a deal almost three times as big as Zimmermann's. Or consider that the Tigers could have had either ...
- David Price
... or ...
- Jordan Zimmermann
- Matt Boyd
- Daniel Norris
- Jairo Labourt
- An extra $100 million to spend on other free agents
... for the same amount of money. Suddenly their situation doesn't seem so dire.
The Tigers could have gone cheap, too. They could have explored the second- and third-tier pitchers. The Blue Jays spent $62 million to secure Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ over the next couple years, and the Tigers could have done something similar and then headed right back out on the free agent market for more help. There's an argument to be made for that approach, but teams like the Tigers are right to target one excellent pitcher instead of two enigmatic ones.
The Blue Jays are actually an excellent contrast to the Tigers. About a week before the 2015 trade deadline, they were both at .500. It seems like 48 years ago because we remember the 2015 Blue Jays as an unstoppable force of dingers and swagger, and we remember the 2015 Tigers as a last-place disappointment. But just three months before the season ended, the two teams were tied in the standings for the second Wild Card. They each had postseason hopes and long odds, and no one knew if they were going to be in or out at the deadline.
The Blue Jays were in. They carped the hell out of their diem, and it led to bat-flipping wonders and sold out crowds.
The Tigers were out. They traded their unlikely hopes to the Blue Jays in exchange for prospects and unlikely hopes to be named later, and then they sank into the cellar. The cellar was filled with pickled what-ifs. Those things smell awful.
After going in different directions at the deadline, though, they've met again as the first teams to dip into the starting pitcher market. They're not just win-now teams, they might be the two teams with the greatest sense of urgency in baseball, with clearly defined windows and tough decisions to make over the next year or two.
And they're both doing just about what they need to do. The Blue Jays need to spread the risk around in the rotation and give their imposing lineup a chance to outslug every team in every game, but they still want a shot to keep Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista after the season. Low-risk, low-cost, lower-reward pitchers make sense for them.
The Tigers need all sorts of unreliable things to go right if they're going to contend, like Anibal Sanchez and Victor Martinez bouncing back, prospects succeeding at the back of the rotation, and young hitters taking a developmental step forward. They can't deal with mercurial pitchers right now. They need cost certainty, at least for the next couple years. Zimmermann fits that spot very well. High-risk, high-cost, high-reward pitchers make sense for them.
And if there's more money left, shovel it somewhere else. The blimps are on the same course as they were before. They might be a lot closer. But they're flying over a ballpark that still has a chance for some interesting games in 2016. That might not be the case for awhile, so the Tigers are right to chase their remaining opportunity now. It's not like they have a choice.