Notes and quotes from Zimmermann press conference

As I wrote for the site off the press conference, Jordan Zimmermann and the Tigers were a match of two sides with a mutual interest in getting a deal done early. Part of the reason was a shared comfort level; Zimmermann felt good about Detroit and the Tigers had prioritized Zimmermann early. Another part was a wariness of what might happen if they wait.

Zimmermann potentially could’ve gotten a bigger deal had he waited for David Price and Zack Greinke to sign, some admit. But he had no way of knowing what team would’ve been in position to make the offer, and how comfortable he would be with it. By moving early in the game of musical chairs, at least he had a choice.

“I knew what my value was and we got semi-close to what I was worth,” Zimmermann said in a smaller group session after his larger press conference. “We were going to jump early when the Tigers got to it. Obviously it’s nice to get close to home, and with a big ballpark, which I really like. I think it’s a perfect fit.

“Obviously if we didn’t get what I was worth, then we would’ve waited, played it out. But we got what we wanted and the team is a perfect fit, so it was a no-brainer.”

Asked if they could’ve benefited from waiting out the market, given their position as a team that doesn’t have to give up its first-round draft pick to sign any free agent, general manager Al Avila hesitated.

“Actually, it works both ways,” he said. “In some cases, there’s going to be certain guys that maybe the cost increases, and in some cases maybe the cost decreases. You really don’t know until it all plays out. It’s unpredictable.”

Word of mouth

While Zimmermann acknowledged that playing close to his Wisconsin home was a factor in his decision, he said it wasn’t a priority. Instead, Detroit’s appeal had a lot more to do with its early interest in him as a primary option rather than a what-if situation.

Nor, Zimmermann added, did word of mouth play a major factor for him with former teammates. Though he pitched in the same Nationals rotation this past season as former Tigers teammates Max Scherzer and Doug Fister, he said he only sought out Fister’s advice for minor issues, not a big-picture feel for the clubhouse and the city.

“I didn’t want to give him too much information,” Zimmermann said, “but he told me the best places to live in spring training, just small things like that. I haven’t talked with him a whole lot.”

By contrast, Fister had more feedback for Scherzer when he made the jump from Detroit to Washington as a free agent last winter.


Zimmermann went from a sub-.300 BABIP and sub-.270 batting average against fastballs in his history to a .309 BABIP and a .456 slugging percentage against his fastball this past season. That played a seemingly significant reason behind his jump in home runs allowed to 24, a career high and his first time over 20 despite another season of heavy work.

“I’m not concerned about it at all,” Zimmermann said. “I might have left a few more balls over the middle of plate and they just happened to go out. I remember a few home runs were they were really good pitches up and in, where I like to live. Stuff like that’s going to happen. Hopefully this big ballpark’s going to help me out.”

How Al Avila’s search for a closer landed him K-Rod

The Tigers touched base with clubs before last week’s General Managers Meetings, a regular practice at the start of the offseason to gauge teams’ needs and what they’d be willing to deal. They found a surprising number of teams willing to trade their closer. They also found many of those teams looking for big returns to do so. The Tigers checked in on Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and reportedly Brad Boxberger, but found teams asking on the same high-level prospects that the Tigers felt they needed — not just down the road, but in the very near future.

They engaged in early talks with free agent Joakim Soria, their closer for much of last season, but a heavy amount of interest pushed the expected contract from two years to three. Darren O’Day, meanwhile, is reportedly looking for a four-year contract, according to MLB Network’s Ken Rosenthal.

The Tigers wanted to address their bullpen, and closer was at the top of the list. At the same time, they didn’t want to sell out their farm system or take up payroll space budgeted for starting pitchers. So during the GM Meetings, they came back to the Brewers about Francisco Rodriguez.

“With [new Brewers GM] David Stearns, obviously we had reached out before the GM Meetings and just kind of exchanged information like we normally do with clubs as far as needs and that nature,” Tigers GM Al Avila said on Wednesday’s conference call. “And then at the GM Meetings, we had talked about it a little bit more.”

As talks with Soria’s agent lingered, the suspicion grew that the Tigers were preferring their trade options. By Tuesday, this was clearly the one they preferred.

“After all the conversations, we just decided this would be the rest route for us,” Avila said. “We felt that Francisco, with his experience, gave us the best option to close games for us this coming year and gives us the flexibility to continue to add bullpen pieces.

“Also it’s a one-year contract with an option, so it gives us some flexibility there. The overall trade was good for both clubs. The full situation of acquiring a pitcher we were comfortable giving the ball in the ninth inning with his experience, and the full package of the deal, is really what made it attractive for us. And we were able to keep some of the younger guys we wanted to keep.”

Rodriguez, who signed in mid-March after lingering on the free-agent market, will make $7.5 million next year – of which $2 million is deferred to 2018 — on the back half of a two-year, $13 million contract. The Tigers hold a $6 million club option for 2017, or a $2 million buyout. Even if Rodriguez isn’t the closer by season’s end, as long as he’s healthy and reasonably effective, it’s a reasonable deal to pick up the option. Thus, the Tigers get two years of Rodriguez — his age-34 and 35 seasons — for $13.5 million and second-base prospect Javier Betancourt, who was 11th on’s Tigers prospect list but was expected to be at least a year away from the big leagues. There’s also a player to be named in the deal that is expected to be decided later this winter.

The Tigers have been linked with interest with Rodriguez in the past, but have always turned elsewhere. When he was still on the market last Spring Training, Detroit didn’t have the payroll space, turning back to Joba Chamberlain on a $1 million deal for depth. What Rodriguez did as closer last year — 38 saves in 40 chances, a career-best 0.86 WHIP, 6.0 hits per nine innings, and a still-strong 9.8 K/9 thanks to a nasty changeup — caught their attention. While his 20 home runs allowed over the last two years was a high rate, the transition from Miller Park to Comerica Park is expected to temper that.

Tigers pick up contract talks with Soria, but no offer yet

The Tigers’ search for a closer might well be in the middle innings at this point. With teams gauging interest for their late-inning relievers on the trade market as a shallower free-agent market lingers, the same could be said of many clubs.

The Tigers have picked up negotiations with Soria’s agent since their face-to-face meeting at last week’s GM Meetings, but have yet to present an offer, an industry source told That could come later this week.

While interest is strong in the 31-year-old right-hander, who racked up 24 saves between Detroit and Pittsburgh this past season, the market has been slow to move, save for an early offer from an unnamed club. One perception among some industry observers is that trade chatter involving late-inning relievers, even after Craig Kimbrel’s trade to Boston for prospects, is having an impact on what was a relatively quick-moving relief market last offseason.

That market could include Rays closer Brad Boxberger and left-hander Jake McGee if the return is big enough. The Tigers are among the teams that expressed interest, according to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times.

Unlike All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman, another reliever the Tigers have checked in on, Boxberger and McGee both have multiple years before they’re eligible for free agency — two years away for McGee, four for Boxberger. Chapman can hit the free-agent market next winter. With the Reds believed to be seeking a hefty return — Major League ready talent, according to ESPN’s Jayson Stark — the value for a club could hinge on winning now and/or signing Chapman long-term.

Other closers rumored to be up for trade discussion include Pittsburgh’s Mark Melancon, Texas’ Shawn Tolleson, Philadelphia’s Ken Giles, Washington’s tandem of Jonathan Papelbon and Drew Storen, and Yankees closer Andrew Miller, though the Yankees would reportedly have to be overwhelmed by an offer with young pitching to part with Miller with three years left on his contract.

Part of the problem the Tigers encounter on the trade market is their competition. Other clubs reportedly seeking closers, such as the Astros, have deeper farm systems that can shed a prospect or two without much long-term impact. The Red Sox are out of the market after trading for Kimbrel, but gave up enough of a package to impact expectations for other clubs on what they could get for their closer. Detroit, meanwhile, is in the midst of rebuilding the farm system and needs a good share of the young Major League-ready pitching it has.

Meanwhile, Soria appears to be in position to let trade talks play out and wait for the market to come to him. The same could be said of fellow free-agent reliever Darren O’Day, who has not been a full-time closer but is seen by many as closer potential after six saves this past season and 12 over the last three years. The combination could leave the Tigers in a holding pattern to fill what was expected to be the first task on new general manager Al Avila’s to-do list.

Pirates claim Guido Knudson on waivers

The first day of Major League Baseball’s General Managers meetings saw the Tigers lose a player. Reliever Guido Knudson was claimed off waivers by the Pirates, reducing Detroit’s 40-man roster to 34 players.

Knudson was a midseason success story, turning a breakthrough season in the minor leagues into a call-up to Detroit on Aug. 20 for his first big-league stint. He gave up a home run in each of his first four Major League outings, all in reliever, the first reliever to do so since at least 1914 according to STATS. The 26-year-old right-hander allowed five home runs in five innings after giving up just three homers (and just 44 hits overall) over 59 2/3 innings between Double-A Erie and Toledo, and just 14 homers over 245 1/3 innings in his minor-league career. He saved 10 games this year for the Mud Hens, and saved another for the SeaWolves.

Knudson did not rank among’s top 30 Tigers prospects, but in an organization searching for relief arms, he was a rare homegrown reliever. The Tigers are expected to add multiple Major League relievers this offseason.

JaCoby Jones suspended 50 games for drug of abuse

Tigers infield prospect JaCoby Jones’ rise up the organizational ladder is halted. The shortstop received a 50-game suspension from Major League Baseball on Thursday after a second positive test for a drug of abuse.

The suspension includes the rest of Arizona Fall League, where Jones had been selected for Saturday’s Fall Stars Game showcasing the league’s top prospects. He had been removed from the Scottsdale Scorpions’ lineup earlier Thursday with what was characterized as an illness, according to the Detroit News. The remaining games in Scottsdale’s season (12, including Thursday) will count towards Jones’ suspension, leaving him to serve a 38-game suspension to begin next year.

The Tigers issued a statement in the wake of the suspension announcement:

“The Detroit Tigers recognize the suspension of JaCoby Jones for violating Minor League Baseball’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program as a measure taken in the best interest of the game, and the ballclub continues to fully support this policy. The Tigers’ organization will provide no further comment on Jones’ suspension.”

The Tigers acquired Jones from Pittsburgh in the Joakim Soria trade July 30. He had a three-homer outburst in his third game for Double-A Erie on Aug. 2, and finished with a .250 average, six homers and 20 RBIs in 37 games for the SeaWolves. He finished the season as the Tigers’ 10th-ranked prospect according to’s rankings.

For the year, the 23-year-old batted .257 with 25 doubles, 16 homers and 80 RBIs in 133 games across three stops, ending the season ranked 10th on’s Tigers top prospect list. He won AFL Co-Player of the Week honors a couple weeks ago after following up a two-homer game with a 4-for-4 effort for the Scottsdale Scorpions, and entered Thursday batting .280 (14-for-50) with three walks and 17 strikeouts for the campaign.

Jones’ hitting and positional versatility might have given him a chance to land a spot in Major League camp for Spring Training.

The Arizona Fall League announced Thursday evening that Tigers outfield prospect Mike Gerber will replace Jones on the Fall Stars Games roster. The 23-year-old entered Thursday batting .298 (14-for-47) for Scottsdale with four doubles, two triples, a home run, 12 RBIs and a stolen base. He ranks 18th on’s Tigers prospect rankings.

Al Avila talks free-agent spending, bullpen fixes on MLB Network

Al Avila made his first appearance as Tigers general manager on MLB Network’s Hot Stove morning show, which started back up Wednesday. I believe he was the first GM on the show this offseason, though Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro beat him to first executive on the show yesterday. You can view the 10-minute segment above.

Nothing Avila said was all that different from expectations, though he got into offseason spending given their payroll. He confirmed they’re unlikely to be spending as big as some recent winters, given how many needs they have and the payroll space available.

“I would say it is probably more restrictive this year, just because we have the money invested in so many guys already,” Avila said. “But in saying that, we still want to go out there and try to win a championship, so we will be out there in the free agent market trying to do the best we can with that money that we have.

“We have to strengthen ourselves with our pitching. We are happy that Verlander really finished the season real strong the last 2 1/2 months. He showed us that he can be the pitcher that we need him to be. Sanchez also at the end of the year was healthy and ready to go. We decided just to keep him down. He went on and went through his strength and conditioning, and that is what he is doing right now, so he is healthy. So, those two guys coming back really give us a lift and positive hope going into next year.

“Saying that then, we need to go out and get two more starting pitchers. The reason I say that is because some of the young guys that we have that we like, we would like to not push them so much where we are going in with three young guys per se and try to win a championship. You can add one guy in there, but you can’t have three.”

The annual question of the Tigers bullpen and how to fix it also came up. In answering it, Avila referenced internal options, either through the relievers they already have or through moving starters around.

“Well, the bullpen has always been a mystery to a lot of clubs. It’s not just the Detroit Tigers,” Avila said. “I would say the best way to fix your bullpen, in reality, is to have your own players homegrown, knowing what you have got coming through the system and then putting them out there. That is really the best way for do it. Now, in saying that, when you don’t have that coming through, then you have to go out and acquire players either via trade or free agency. That is all we are trying to do.

“We are evaluating the possible in-house candidates that can go out and close out games or be an eighth inning guy. We can evaluate that process, and we’ll make decisions in Spring Training. But at the same time now, here in the offseason we have to target the best available relievers that we can and see which one or which ones we end up acquiring. So it is a combination of both. You can’t just say, ‘I am going to give this guy an opportunity from within,’ and not try to do due diligence and either acquire a guy through free agency or trades. But if everybody had their druthers and the perfect situation is, you bring a guy up through the system. He gets the experience, taught through the system. Then you bring him to the big leagues, and you put him in there in a less stressful role, and within time you put him there in the back end, and he ends up being your guy. That is really the best way to do it.”

Tigers officially end Joe Nathan tenure, add Luis Cessa to roster

The Joe Nathan era with the Tigers officially ended Tuesday, when the team declined the injured closer’s $10 million option for next season and added pitching prospect Luis Cessa to the 40-man roster in his place.

Under terms of Nathan’s contract, the Tigers will pay him $1 million to buy out the option. He immediately becomes a free agent.

The decision was pretty much a formality once Nathan underwent Tommy John surgery in April, ending his 2015 season after one outing, one batter, one strikeout and one save — all on Opening Day against the Twins. Nathan, who turns 41 later this month, spent the rest of the season rehabbing and has said he hopes to pitch again at some point next season, though being ready for Spring Training might be difficult.

The Tigers signed Nathan to a two-year, $20 million as a free agent in December 2013, hoping to lock down ninth-inning save opportunities after watching bullpen struggles help doom them in the 2013 ALCS against Boston. Nathan was coming off a dominant 2013 season in Texas, but never found that form in Detroit, instead encountered some of his toughest times since undergoing his previous Tommy John surgery in 2010.

Nathan saved 35 games in 2014, but suffered seven blown saves and posted a 4.81 ERA along the way. He gave up 60 hits over 58 innings, walked 29 batters nad struck out 54. His 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings marked his lowest rate since he was a starter with the Giants in 2000.

Nathan changed his offseason workouts designed to strengthen his arm and feel younger overall. He felt better, but he still dealt with his share of offensive damage during Grapefruit League. He went into the season as the closer before his elbow betrayed him.

Cessa was part of the return package the Tigers received from the Mets in the Yoenis Cespedes trade July 31. The 23-year-old right-hander was a standout in the Mets system at Double-A Binghamton, going 7-4 with a 2.91 ERA in 13 starts. He struggled at Triple-A, both at Las Vegas before the trade and Toledo afterwards, but still racked up 58 strikeouts over 62 innings between the two stops. He ranks sixth on’s Tigers prospect list.

Detroit needed to add Cessa to the 40-man roster at some point this month to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft in December week, or he would’ve become a minor-league free agent. He began his pro career as an infielder in the Mets system in 2009 before becoming a pitcher two years later.

Kinsler wins Fielding Bible Award at second base

While Ian Kinsler awaits the final results of Gold Glove voting to be released next month, he captured his first major defensive award Friday. The Tigers second baseman was voted for a Fielding Bible Award, given out annually to the best fielder in baseball at each position as determined by a panel of experts.

Kinsler beat out Boston’s Dustin Pedroia, who had won the previous two awards at second base. Kinsler also becomes the first Tiger to win a Fielding Bible Award since Austin Jackson in 2011.

While a 12-member panel votes on the winners, the Fielding Bible Awards tends to emphasize defensive metrics. All 10 winners this year led their respective position in Defensive Runs Saved. Voters include Bill James, John Dewan, Peter Gammons, Joe Posnanski, Brian Kenny, Mark Simon, Rob Neyer, Doug Glanville and Dave Cameron.

Kinsler finished second to Pedroia last year despite leading the Majors with 20 DRS. While Pedroia suffered an injury-plagued season, Kinsler easily led his position in metrics. His 19 DRS was six better than any other Major League second baseman this season, according to Fangraphs. Though his error total jumped from nine to 13, his 6.3 Ultimate Zone Rating was best in the American League and second only to Miami’s Dee Gordon, who finished second in the voting.

Kinsler’s 2.6 defensive Wins Above Replacement, according to the baseball-reference formula, ranked him eighth among all Major League players regardless of position. He finished near-even with Cubs infielder Addison Russell, who split his rookie season between second base and shortstop.

Kinsler has put up 20 Defensive Runs Saved over the last three seasons, according to The Fielding Bible. The next-best total among Major League second basemen is 29 from Colorado’s D.J. LeMahieu.

Kinsler is one of three finalists for the American League Gold Glove award at second base, as announced on Thursday. Pedroia, winner of the last two Gold Gloves, is another, as is Seattle’s Robinson Cano. Major League coaches vote on the honors, to be revealed in November.

Daniel Norris says he’s cancer free after surgery

Daniel Norris said he’s cancer-free after undergoing surgery for a cancerous growth on his thyroid.

Norris made the announcement on his Instagram account, posting a photo of himself with the scar from the procedure.

“I just want to thank everyone for the thoughts and prayers,” Norris posted. “Surgery was successful and I am Cancer Free.”

The post comes 10 days after Norris announced on Instagram that he had been diagnosed with a cancerous growth on his thyroid earlier in the season, before he’d been traded from the Blue Jays to the Tigers on July 30. Tigers general manager Al Avila said the team was aware of Norris’ situation at the time of the deal.

“This is a personal matter with Daniel,” Avila said earlier this month. “Yes, we did know about it before the trade. We expect him to have a full recovery and be with us in Spring Training.”

Norris kept pitching through the season after a second opinion determined he could wait until season’s end to have surgery. Norris not only kept pitching, he pitched well with the Tigers. He became the first American League pitcher to hit a home run at Wrigley Field during an Interleague game against the Cubs in August, before going on the disabled list with an oblique strain. He returned to make four starts in September, including 10 scoreless innings over two starts against the White Sox.

“Baseball kept me sane,” he posted Oct. 19. “Regardless of results on the field, I forgot about it when I was between the lines. After all, I was just trying to get the heck out of AAA. And I did. I was revived with an opportunity, a blessing from God, with the Tigers back in the big leagues.”

According to the American Cancer Society web site, the five-year relative survival rate is high for people diagnosed with thyroid cancer in its early stages — near 100 percent for Stages I and II. Even the stage III survival rate is high, depending on the type of thyroid cancer. Surgery is usually involved to remove a growth.

Ausmus does homework, trusts recommendations, goes with Rich Dubee

Brad Ausmus started with a list of 20 pitching coach candidates. He whittled it down to six. He had coaches he knew, coaches he didn’t know, coaches who came recommended. But with his job future likely on the line next season, he had the list. If you count Jeff Jones as a holdover two years ago, then this was Ausmus’ first pitching coach hire, and he came prepared.

“Brad did just about all the legwork and research,” general manager Al Avila said. “He turned over a list to me of guys he wanted to interview, and I gave my thoughts, and [Rich Dubee] was at the top of the list.”

Amidst questions whether he’d go with familiarity from his playing career, Ausmus went with Dubee, who he didn’t know but came recommended from people he did, from predecessor Jim Leyland to bench coach Gene Lamont to bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer.

“I was kind of doing cursory research on all of them,” Ausmus said Thursday on a conference call. “When we get to that half-dozen, that’s when the interview process really began, covering a number of topics. We covered scouting reports, what they’ve used in past to prepare pitchers for opposing lineups, how much they were involved in the analytical side of it, what numbers they used, how open they were to new analytics.

“Having experience at the Major League level was important for us at this point. Really, it just came down to Rich and his experience with the Phillies (from 2005 to 2013). I had a lot of recommendations for him.”

Leyland’s last season as Marlins manager in 1998 was Dubee’s first season as a Major League pitching coach. Billmeyer was bullpen coach under Dubee for much of his Philly tenure.

Beyond that, Ausmus had several former teammates who pitched for Dubee in Philadelphia, including Roy Oswalt, Brad Lidge and Chad Qualls.

“I actually spoke to a number of pitchers who worked with Rich,” Ausmus said, “and they all gave glowing recommendations.”

Roy Halladay won a Cy Young award, the second of his career, under Dubee’s watch in Philadelphia in 2010. When Halladay’s pitching faded two years ago, his final Major League season, Dubee caught criticism, including publicly from then-MLB Network personality Mitch Williams. Halladay came to his defense.

“Rich Dubee, when I first came over, he taught me a changeup,” Halladay said at the time. “If I hadn’t had that coming over here, I wouldn’t have had the success I’ve had over here. Especially dealing with the injuries I’ve dealt with, if I didn’t have that pitch, if I didn’t have him working with me, I really would have been in a lot of trouble. …

“There’s very few pitching coaches that I respect more than Rich Dubee. Watching Kyle Kendrick, the stuff that he’s learned, the way he’s grown, is because of Rich Dubee and it’s because of his work ethic and the way he goes about things. It really does upset me. It upsets me that guys outside of our group of guys that don’t understand what’s going on here make comments like that.”

That ability to connect with star pitchers is key, given Justin Verlander’s situation as he tries to build off of his second-half rebound and turn it into a career rebirth, and Anibal Sanchez’s attempt to rebound from a nightmarish season that included a shoulder scare.

At the same time, Dubee will have to serve as a mentor for a group of young pitchers the Tigers need to develop if they’re going to return to contention. Daniel Norris tops the list, but the guys beyond him — Matt Boyd, Michael Fulmer, Shane Greene, Buck Farmer, Ian Krol, Drew VerHagen and of course Bruce Rondon, to name some — are going to be key.

Dubee will have to get production out of these guys, like he has in the past. While Josh Beckett, A.J.  Burnett and Brad Penny were prized pupils, other names to develop under him included Ryan Dempster in Miami and Kyle Kendrick in Philly. Dubee spent the last two years as Braves minor-league pitching coordinator, and Avila said that Atlanta GM John Coppolella spoke highly of him.

“I was very fortunate to have the guys we had in Philadelphia,” Dubee said. “People forget that Cole Hamels was a rookie at one time, Kyle Kendrick. We had a number of young guys come through. When you’re approaching each guy, it’s on an individual basis. A veteran guy has a little more say on what’s going on, where you might be more forceful with a young guy.”

Asked what his pitching philosophy is, Dubee said: “I like guys that are aggressive. You have to be able to throw strike one. Count is very important in this game, getting ahead. But you can’t do it just with a fastball. You have to pitch ahead in the count, but you have to be able to do it with a variety of pitches.”

That reflects in the stats he analyzes going into a series.

“Averages in swing counts, what a hitter hits in 0-0 counts, what a hitter hits in 1-0 counts, the swing tendencies,” he said.

“I believe in using everything, but I think there has to be some type of balance. And I think there has to be a balance in how much you give pitchers themselves.”

Dubee will give additional information on tendencies and such to his catchers, he said, because they can process it in a calmer fashion when situations get tight.

That said, the metrics won’t help when it comes to mechanical work. That’s where the teaching part comes in.

“For me, I try to instill some sort of simple key physically and mentally,” Dubee said, looking for something that will allow the pitcher to get back in form with a simple adjustment that he might be able to do in-game.

“And when something does go awry, you have to be able to see it,” Dubee said. “You have to be able to get your point across on making some sort of adjustments.”

In short, Dubee said, “I believe in analytics, and I believe in my eyes also.”


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