I came here today expecting to tell you that Jordan Zimmermann was Boston's best bet for a free agent ace this offseason. In a market dominated by David Price and Johnny Cueto, Zimmermann seemed like the guy who might get lost in the shuffle. The James Shields to Price and Cueto's Scherzer and Lester, just a few years younger. No, Zimmermann is not going to wind up signing for $75 million as Shields did, but he might fly under the radar some, and thus not reach the same ridiculous heights that Cueto and Price are likely to reach in terms of, well, price.
I did so knowing that a good-not-great 2015 season was part of why he might not get that top dollar. But, after a closer look at just what happened this past year, I'm not so sure.
He was good. This is true. The Red Sox do not run much risk of signing a bad pitcher right out of the gates. Even though 2015 was not up to his normal standards, he pitched to a 110 ERA+, and if that ERA was higher than usual, well, his strikeout and walk rates were basically in line with his career averages. Not at the heights he managed in 2014, no, but even if we call 2014 an abberation, Zimmermann's history is still that of a very good pitcher.
The problem is how he arrived at those numbers. It was the fastball. It got hammered in 2015. Zimemrmann's offspeed offerings were all fine. His curveball in particular was more effective than it's ever been. But the fastball--a pitch which constituted 70% of his excellent 2014 season--was far worse than it's ever been before. And it came with a slight downward tick in terms of velocity.
The awkward thing here is that there's nothing in that which really condemns Zimmermann. Losing less than a mile per hour off his fastball isn't a huge red flag, particularly since it actually bumped up on average towards the middle.end of the year. Having its effectiveness go to hell might just be the result of hitters going all in on the pitch, which would explain his curveball working and could easily be sorted out by a change in approach. Nothing here screams decline.
But it all hints at it. It's an unfortunate in-between which makes it hard to just say unequivocally that, no, Zimmermann isn't the guy for us, but just as hard to feel safe betting on him.
For my money, I expect if Zimmermann ends up getting paid like, say, Jon Lester, the Red Sox could find themselves a better option on the trade market. Honestly, given how many bodies they have in the minors (and, for that matter, young guys in the majors), I expect that's the direction they go in to begin with. But the possibility exists that nobody is selling, making free agency their one real option.
In that case, it's going to be a question of the contract. Or, to be more precise, how bad said contract looks if Zimmermann ends up being the guy he was this season. If he is some percent to be an ace and some percent to be a #3, well, these days that's probably worth 6/$120 or 5/$110. It's not worth 6/$160 or more. It's not worth paying the sort of money that buys a more certain ace. Particularly when you consider that Zimmermann would be moving to not only the American League, but Fenway Park.
And the thing is, at the moment, nobody has any idea where that contract is going to land. Between Price, Cueto and, as of about 10 minutes ago (after the first paragraph but before this one), Zack Greinke, a lot of the teams that will be looking to pay top dollar to an ace will find other outlets. If that leaves the Red Sox alone in the room with Zimmermann and a bunch of mid-market teams, well, they might just be able to land a big fish at a medium price. Hopefully the trade market will leave them with options enough that they're not left choosing between Zimmermann and nothing if the situation runs late.