Tigers hoping for a healthy Zimmermann in 2017

Tigers hoping for a healthy Zimmermann in 2017

DETROIT -- The Tigers are having a very quiet offseason on the pitching front. But they could have a big addition this spring if Jordan Zimmermann can report to Spring Training feeling like his old self.

It's far from certain, given the neck and back issues that derailed Zimmermann's first season in Detroit. Six weeks out, the signs are encouraging.

General manager Al Avila mentioned at last month's Winter Meetings that Zimmermann received an injection in his neck designed to address the lingering pain that sidelined him for most of the final four months last season. He received the second and final planned injection recently and has been working out.

"It's not that there was an issue. It was planned as part of therapy," manager Brad Ausmus said at the time.

Zimmermann feels strong enough that he is long-tossing, Avila said in an email Wednesday.

"He is [throwing] at 180 feet, doing great," Avila said.

At this point, the 30-year-old right-hander is expected to be ready to go when pitchers and catchers report to the Tigers' renovated Spring Training complex in mid-February. How he looks when he arrives will likely have a major impact on the kind of team the Tigers bring north for Opening Day and their chances at another run for a playoff berth.

The Tigers signed Zimmermann last offseason to a five-year, $110 million deal, closing the revolving door of frontline pitchers that had been complementing Justin Verlander the previous couple of seasons. For the first month and a half, the former Washington Nationals pitcher looked like Detroit's new ace, fronting the rotation while Verlander worked to find his form.

Zimmermann stars in April

Zimmermann didn't give up his first run with the Tigers until his fourth start, tossing 24 1/3 scoreless innings to begin his Detroit tenure. He ended April with a 5-0 record and a 0.55 ERA in five starts, then tossed back-to-back quality starts in defeat to begin May. He was an efficient, strike-throwing, grounder-inducing out machine.

Zimmermann was 5-2 with a 1.50 ERA through his first seven starts. He went 4-5 with a 7.69 ERA in 11 starts and a relief appearance the rest of the season, including just four appearances after the end of June. He looked neither comfortable nor effective, and his velocity took a drop. By mid-September, he was a long reliever and spot starter for a team in the American League Wild Card race, relegated to help support a rotation that had Verlander and three youngsters as its constants.

If Zimmermann's healthy, Ausmus made it clear last month that there's a spot for him, along with Verlander and reigning AL Rookie of the Year Award winner Michael Fulmer.

While Avila talked at season's end about the long-term quest to shed some high salaries and stir up a younger, leaner roster, Zimmermann hasn't been one of those candidates. For one, his contract is too big and too long to draw much interest or much young talent in return. He also isn't that old yet, certainly not in pitching years.

If the Tigers are going to contend in 2017, a Zimmermann bounceback is essential. Even if they don't contend, it's rather important.

"Really all we can do is kind of hold our breath and get to Spring Training and hope it doesn't flare up again, because we need him," Ausmus said last month.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.