The Chicago Cubs could be aggressive shoppers in the free agent market this offseason, so it’s worth taking a look at some of the players who could be of potential interest to the team. These players present possible fits for the Cubs, at a range of potential costs and talent levels.
Performance in 2015
Jordan Zimmermann, 29, becomes the third pitcher tackled in this series, after previously discussing Johnny Cueto and David Price. In a way, Zimmermann falls in between Price and Cueto in terms of reliability, health concerns and expected price tag. While he’s probably a safer bet than Johnny Cueto to be good in 2016, he probably comes with less overall upside, and much of that has to do with his relatively mediocre 2015 season.
After 33 starts (201.2 IP) in 2015, Jordan Zimmermann slashed just 3.66/3.75/3.82 with 3.0 WAR. Now, don’t get me wrong, those numbers aren’t bad – by any means, really – they are just not as inspiring as the years prior (more on that in a bit). Indeed, his 3.0 WAR in 2015 is the lowest total Zimmermann has posted in any full season since he reached the majors in 2009. Having started the 2015 season at just 28 years old, while headed towards free agency and coming off a 5.3 WAR campaign in 2014, I’m guessing this year was a bit of a let-down, compared to expectations.
But what happened this year, and is there reason to be concerned?
Unfortunately, not too much of his performance can be tied to flukiness or bad luck. Zimmermann’s BABIP in 2015 (.302) was exactly identical to his 5-WAR season the year before. His LOB% in 2015 (74.5%) was a bit lower than 2014 (75.8%), but that’s not really enough to explain a full run difference in his ERA and more than a run difference in his FIP. His groundball rate (42%) in 2015 wasn’t the cause, as that was higher than the season before, though ultimately lower than it was earlier in his career, so what’s left is HR/FB rate.
In 2014, Jordan Zimmermann was a bit fortunate. His HR/FB that year was a very manageable 6.4%. In 2015, though, that figure shot all the way up to 10.9%. To be clear, some of that increase was likely just normal baseball fluctuation, but not all of it can be reasoned away. Before 2014, Zimmermann’s career HR/FB rate was 9.3%. And while that is still a far cry from 10.9%, it does serve to remind us that 2014’s rate (6.4%) was probably the fluke, and not the other way around.
There was some good news in 2015, though, that isn’t immediately obvious by his traditional stats, and that is the changes in his batted ball data. In 2015, Zimmermann’s ground ball rate increased, while his line drive rate shot down over two percentage points. The amount of soft contact he induced increased a bit, while both his medium and hard contact went down. None of the changes were overly drastic, but improvement is improvement and those are encouraging changes. If he can manage to get the HR/FB% under control (or just get more lucky), there might be some nice upside remaining for 2016.
Performance before 2015
Before 2015, Jordan Zimmermann probably looks like a better pitcher, overall. From 2011-2014 his ERA was below 3.00 twice (2012: 2.94 ERA, 2014: 2.66 ERA) and above 3.00 twice (2011: 3.18 ERA, 2013: 3.25). His FIP bounced around also, but only in 2014 was his it ever exceptional (2.68).
Frankly, most of his stats bounce up and down, but rarely stray too far from each other. His strike out rate was at its lowest in 2013 (18.6%) but his highest in 2014 (22.8%), while his walk rate bottoms out at 3.6% in 2014 and maxes out at 5.3% in 2012. There really hasn’t been one season where one stat is exceptionally/unusually better than the others. 2014 was clearly his best year, yes, but his stats are generally in line with his career performance. Jordan Zimmermann hasn’t been a fantastic pitcher, but he has been a pretty consistently good one.
Even his velocity has been pretty consistent throughout his career. Never has his average fastball velocity been lower than 93.0 MPH (2015), and never has it been higher than 93.9 MPH (2013).
Projection for 2016 and Beyond
Frankly, assuming health, Zimmermann doesn’t strike me as someone that is too difficult to project, based on the relative consistency between his traditional stats, advanced stats and fastball velocity. His past two seasons are probably the extremes to which his performance can/should/will vary over the next few years (unless of course the drop in velocity of 0.7 MPH from 2014 to 2015 was the start of a trend). If that were to be the case, of course, Zimmermann could be in for some trouble, because while 93-94 MPH is fairly solid, dropping into the 90-92 range would represent a pretty significant step down.
Steamer projects a continued decline from Zimmermann for 2016, though. After throwing between 195.2 and 213.1 innings over the past four seasons, Steamer projects Zimmermann to reach just 180.0 innings pitched in 2016. While his ERA is projected to get better (3.48), his projected FIP (3.63) is a tad higher than one would hope. For the contract Zimmermann will likely demand (more on that in a second), this isn’t quite reassuring.
Possible Contract/Existing Rumors
Recently, Fangraphs came out with a Free Agent Contract Crowdsourcing project and I think they just about nailed Zimmermann’s expected contract: Roughly six year and $126 million. Brett believes that, despite his youth and success, Zimmermann might wind up with a tad less, given his injury history and recent drop in velocity and strikeouts. I think this is ultimately where he’ll land, whether he’s worth as much or not. Free agency tends to lend itself to a bit more dollars and at least one more year than would be otherwise desirable, so 6/$126M sounds fairly realistic.
The drops in velocity and strikeout rate are certainly an issue on their own, but the degree to which they might worry you (or a front office executive) is no doubt heightened by Zimmermann’s history of injury.
While there were brief cases in 2013 (neck stiffness) 2014 (right bicep cramp) and 2015 (neck stiffness), the real issue was his injury shortened seasons in 2009 and 2010. In July of 2009, Jordan Zimmermann experienced elbow pain and wound up on the disabled list before the month was over. A few weeks later, after a brief attempt to rehab, he was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament and underwent Tommy John surgery. He didn’t make it back to the major leagues until August 26 of the following year and ended the 2010 season having finished just 31 innings. Jordan Zimmermann undoubtedly comes with injury/health questions.
Fit For Cubs
While there are a good deal of questions (health, declining peripherals, less than exciting projections) surrounding Jordan Zimmermann, he still strikes me as a guy that might be in the plans for this offseason. Although his production is expected to be less impactful than other available options, he might be one of the easier pitchers to project going forward, and does still come with a fair amount of upside. Additionally, his contract will certainly be more affordable than David Price and, perhaps Johnny Cueto – whose production, as we know, might not be so easy to pinpoint.
Zimmermann slides nicely behind Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester, while adding a good deal more upside than Kyle Hendricks or Jason Hammel. And don’t forget, he is just 29 years old. That matters a great deal in long-term contracts and future projection.
But again, the thing that might be the most attractive about a potential Jordan Zimmermann contract is the flexibility it offers throughout the rest of the offseason. Consider: $125M for Zimmermann versus upwards of $200M for Price could provide the front office with the opportunity to strike late in the offseason on someone tied to draft pick compensation or someone facing a tough field like Johnny Cueto. Although it is harder to project, saving money on a starting pitcher can also allow the front office to take on more salary in trade. I wouldn’t be surprised if the front office tried to jump on Zimmermann early in the offseason and shore up a deal in the projected range, sooner rather than later. The flexibility it offers later might be too great to pass up.