The Detroit Tigers pried away homegrown Washington Nationals right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, the best starter in the team’s brief history, with a five-year deal Sunday worth $110 million, pending a physical, according to reports. An anchor of the rotation that transformed the Nationals into a contender over the past five seasons, Zimmermann becomes the first of the Nationals’ core free agents to depart this offseason, and the first of the top starting pitchers on the market to come to terms.
If the deal becomes official, Zimmermann will become the first pitcher to undergo Tommy John surgery, then sign a $100 million contract. The deal was first reported by CBS Sports, and the terms of the contract by Fox Sports. Zimmermann and his agent didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment.
Zimmermann, 29, rejected the Nationals’ $15.8 million qualifying offer after the season, meaning the Nationals will receive the Tigers’ first unprotected draft pick. The Tigers are expected to pick ninth in next year’s draft, but the first 10 picks are protected.
The Nationals offered Zimmermann a five-year, $105 million extension last winter, which, coupled with his final year of arbitration, would have made it a six-year, $121.5 million commitment. At the time, Zimmermann was fresh off a two-season stretch that saw him go 33-14 with a no-hitter and a dominant postseason performance in 2014. He went 13-10 with a 3.66 ERA in 2015, hurt by a loss in velocity, victimized by more home runs than normal, still stingy with pitch count and a stickler for strikes.
When extension talks failed last winter and the Nationals signed Max Scherzer to a seven-year $210 million deal, Zimmermann’s departure became an expected outcome, one the Nationals were prepared to absorb with a surplus of young starters such as Lucas Giolito in the farm system. But fan-favorite Zimmermann, the gritty ice-fisher from Wisconsin who will now play most games closer to home, is one of the first stars developed by the Nationals to depart them since the team moved to D.C. He did not pitch well in his final game at Nationals Park, so then-manager Matt Williams took him out between innings with no chance for a curtain call. That ending angered some fans, but Zimmermann, stubbornly stoic, said “I would have pulled me there, too.”
Zimmermann was 70-50 in seven seasons with the Nationals with a 3.32 ERA in 1,094 innings. He has a 4.09 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and had a league-low 1.3 walks-per-nine innings in 2014. The Nationals have published the same telling statistic atop his bio for more than three seasons: Over his past 123 starts, dating to 2012, he has not walked consecutive batters.
Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said earlier this offseason he would be content with a rotation next season of Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Joe Ross and Tanner Roark. Rizzo also added that the Nationals can “never have enough” good starting pitching — a mantra that materialized when the Nationals added Scherzer to the best statistical rotation in baseball last offseason. Zack Greinke and David Price seem likely to set the top tier of the free agent starting pitching market, followed by Johnny Cueto. The Nationals seem unlikely to move for those starters, but they were seen as unlikely to make a move last season for Scherzer.
Although he’s switching leagues, Nationals fans may not have seen the last of Zimmermann. The Tigers come to Nationals Park for a three-game series May 9-11.
“My only regret is that we were not able to bring a championship to the fans of this great city this season,” Zimmermann wrote in a message to fans after the season ended. “Although I may no longer wear the curly W on my head or on my chest, Nationals fans will always be in my heart.”
— James Wagner contributed to this report.