MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Zimm deal narrows market for elite arms

Tigers reportedly agree to contract with righty; Price, Greinke, Cueto still available

Zimm deal narrows market for elite arms

At last count, there were at least seven teams -- and probably eight or nine -- shopping for an elite free-agent starting pitcher. All seem prepared to spend significant dollars to add an impact arm to their rotation.

Let's do the math. Only four pitchers in this offseason's free-agent marketplace qualify as elite starters. That's four guys who can reasonably be counted on to pitch 200 innings with an ERA of 3.00 or below.

Hot Stove Tracker

Zack Greinke and David Price head this class. No question about either of those guys. In addition, Jordan Zimmermann and Johnny Cueto have pitched well enough to join the conversation. Other free agents -- Jeff Samardzija, Mike Leake, Yovani Gallardo -- will be nice fits wherever they land, but they may not have the impact of one of the big four.

Now Zimmermann has reportedly agreed to a five-year, $110 million contract with the Tigers. He's widely seen as the third-best free-agent pitcher on this market, a tick behind Greinke and Price. In the most basic of ways, this is a deal that almost certainly alters the financial landscape for every other starter.

Supply and demand, etc.

Zimmermann's deal is reasonable. He's getting one year less than Jon Lester and two less than Max Scherzer got only a year ago. In terms of average annual salary, Zimmermann's $22 million is significantly below the $30 million threshold of Scherzer and Lester.

Beck on reported Zimmermann deal

In fact, the Tigers may look back a couple of years from now and see Zimmermann as a bargain. He's just 29 years old, and over the last four seasons, the righty has averaged 203 innings, 165 strikeouts and a 3.13 ERA.

In those four seasons, Zimmermann's name is dotted across baseball's leaderboard: eighth in victories, fifth in starts, 12th in innings and 14th in ERA. That 3.13 ERA since 2012 is an eyelash behind Scherzer's 3.12 and slightly better than Stephen Strasburg's 3.17.

Give new Tigers general manager Al Avila credit for surveying the landscape and finding a match between the level of talent he needed and a financial commitment with which he was comfortable.

This deal leaves Price, Greinke and Cueto as the remaining top-of-the-rotation starters. The Giants, Red Sox, Cubs, Cardinals and possibly the Astros, D-backs, Dodgers, Blue Jays and others are all shopping for starting pitching.

This much we know: Asking prices aren't going down. If Price asked for Scherzer's seven-year, $210 million deal -- or a little more -- he'd probably get it. Could he get way more than that?

Duquette on Price's free agency

Inside the industry, there's a healthy guessing game going of where Price would prefer to be. The Cardinals seem to be high on his list, followed by the Giants and others.

Some of the people who know Price best guess he could end up in the National League because he wants to hit. But if the Red Sox are willing to blow the competition out of the water by $30 million or more, as some reports have suggested, will that get the deal done?

Greinke is two years older than Price (32 versus 30), so his deal likely will be shorter. He seems likely to crack the $30 million average salary.

Once Price and Greinke are off the market, the offers for Cueto, Leake, Samardzija and Gallardo could come together quickly. At some point in this process, teams will circle back to the Athletics and Padres to check again about the availability of Sonny Gray and Andrew Cashner.

In other words, the fun is just beginning. The Tigers can line up Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Daniel Norris behind Zimmermann. With Francisco Rodriguez anchoring an overhauled bullpen, Detroit has taken a step back toward the postseason. Others have work to do. Stay tuned.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.