LAKELAND, Fla. — The sight, at first, is jarring. Jogging off the practice fields here, Jordan Zimmermann is wearing a navy Detroit Tigers shirt with the distinctive Old English “D,” his cleats trimmed in bright orange. This feels a long way from the Nationals’ spring training camp in Viera.
But don’t feel sorry for Zimmermann. The 29-year-old is happy, with a five-year, $110 million deal under his belt, a team filled with talent and a permanent home for the foreseeable future. Still, it’s hard to forget the past nine years and see the homegrown pitcher who threw the franchise’s first no-hitter wearing a Detroit uniform.
“I like it here a lot,” Zimmermann said, sitting at a picnic table just outside the home clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium. “The day I walked in the door everyone was great and welcomed me with open arms. There’s not a bad guy on this team. It’s been great from day one.”
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t miss the Nationals, who picked him in the second round of the 2007 draft as a junior out of Wisconsin Stevens Point. He was in the majors by 2009, returned in earnest from Tommy John surgery in 2011 and was an all-star in 2013 and 2014.
“My time there was awesome,” Zimmermann said. “Guys were great. They gave me a chance, and that’s all I can ask for. It was great. I just wish the ending would’ve been a little better. I had to move on to a better place and closer to home, and so far I’m enjoying everything.”
The Nationals and Zimmermann could never agree on a contract extension. They tried in the offseason before the 2014 season, but Zimmermann’s side believed the offer was too low. They tried again before his final season.
The Nationals made an offer. Zimmermann and his agent declined. The team upped the offer to five years, $105 million. Zimmermann and his agent, Mark Pieper of Relativity Sports, made a counter-proposal. Zimmermann said the Nationals told him they were “basically done.” A month later, they signed Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million deal.
“It’s not like we were extremely close to signing anything with the Nats,” Zimmermann said. “But negotiations didn’t get as far as we’d like.”
Zimmermann said the Nationals’ offers “were not exactly the greatest.” He wanted a no-trade clause, but the Nationals haven’t given one since Jayson Werth’s deal before the 2011 season.
“If I sign long term, I don’t want to play for a couple years and get shipped out,” Zimmermann said. “I want to stick with a team and be here for a while.”
By declining the last Nationals offer, Zimmermann gambled on himself. He had a solid season in 2015 but took a step back from his career 2014 campaign. His velocity a tick slower, Zimmermann went 13-10 with a 3.66 ERA. His home run rate increased, and his strikeout rate dropped. Yet he again showed his durability, pitching more than 195 innings for the fourth straight season.
Then came the offseason. Zimmermann made his own list of preferred landing spots and met with a few teams. He figured the Tigers would be interested, and when they called, the contract came together quickly. Other teams, such as the San Francisco Giants and Boston Red Sox, were reportedly interested but had their sights set on other pitchers such as Zack Greinke or David Price.
“I liked the process of [the Tigers] wanting me and coming after me, whereas other teams had me as the second or third options,” Zimmermann said.
He is proud to be the first player to come back from Tommy John surgery and strike a $100 million deal and happy that Detroit is only a 50-minute flight or eight-hour drive from his home in Wisconsin. And even though Zimmermann’s new deal is only $5 million more than the Nationals’ final offer, he values the no-trade clause. He said he gets full no-trade protection for the first two seasons and can make a list of 10 approved teams for the final years of the deal.
“I can buy a house, move my stuff, don’t have to worry about moving,” he said. “I have two kids now, so that part is now taken out of consideration. . . . After five, six years of living in condos and apartments, it gets old. It feels like you’re constantly packing.”
While the overhauled Tigers may not be the favorites to win the American League Central, they have former all-stars Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, J.D Martinez, Victor Martinez, Jose Iglesias and Francisco Rodriguez.
“I thought it was a good fit, and when they signed [three-time all-star] Justin Upton, they made it that much better,” Zimmermann said. “We’re going to score a lot of runs. It’s just up to the pitching staff to hold up their end of the deal.”
This upcoming Saturday, Zimmermann will make his first spring training start for the Tigers in Viera against his old teammates. He and Ian Desmond, who remains unsigned, were such mainstays for the Nationals that their absence feels odd.
“Some of the people think I wanted to leave D.C.,” Zimmermann said. “That was never the case. I was hoping I could play my whole career there. That’s the way baseball is, and now I’m over here.”