When the Detroit Tigers gave Jordan Zimmermann a $110 million contract over the winter, they could have imagined his spearheading a charge into the postseason when September came around.

Now they must worry about whether he’ll contribute anything at all, and how many chips that stacks against them in an American League wild-card race that’s getting tighter by the day.

This kind of hand-wringing can’t be avoided after the loss Zimmermann and the Tigers endured at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles at Comerica Park on Saturday. Making his first start since Aug. 4 and only his second start since June 30, Zimmermann doomed the Tigers to an 11-3 defeat by collecting only three outs and surrendering six runs on four hits and three walks. Three of the hits left the park.

In other words, he was somehow even worse than he was in his last start back in early August. Zimmermann lasted only an inning and two-thirds in that one, giving up six runs on six hits and two walks to the Chicago White Sox. That’s a 49.09 ERA in his last two outings, a mark that makes only Allan Travers look good by comparison.

Zimmermann was obviously rusty in each of these starts. The veteran right-hander apparently wasn’t fully recovered from a nagging neck injury in the first one, as it put him right back on the disabled list afterward. He may not be fully recovered now, either.

“I have no expectations,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said beforehand, via Chris McCosky of the Detroit News. “I want him to pitch well, but he’s been hurt.”

This situation is similar to what the Los Angeles Dodgers are going through with Clayton Kershaw, save for one major difference. He at least showed good stuff in his return from a long DL stint Friday, so he only needs to find his command to reestablish himself as an ace in the coming weeks. Zimmermann showed neither of these key components Saturday.

“Zimmermann threw 42 pitches. He did not look particularly sharp, or crisp, on any of them,” Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press wrote.

The data bears this out. Per Brooks Baseball, Zimmermann sat at 91.8 miles per hour with his fastball, thus continuing a downward trend that hit a nadir in his last outing:

To boot, Zimmermann threw most of his low-velo fastballs right down the heart of the plate. It’s a trend that predates even his last two stinkers. His usual hard-high, slow-low approach has been compromised.

Metrics like FIP and xFIP suggested Zimmermann was lucky to have started the season out with a 2.58 ERA through his first 10 starts. If he were due for a regression no matter what, all his neck woes did was hasten its arrival. Now it’s fair to wonder if this regression is permanent.

If nothing else, it’s a bummer the first year of the Tigers’ big investment would go into the books as a bust. It would be an even bigger bummer if not having a vintage Zimmermann for the stretch run proves to be the difference between the Tigers going to the postseason and them going home.

The latter would be their fate if the season ended today. At 76-65, the Tigers are six games behind the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central race and one game behind the Orioles for the AL’s second wild-card spot. Meanwhile, the New York Yankees are also 76-65 after winning their seventh in a row Saturday. The Houston Astros also won, putting them just a game-and-a-half behind Detroit and New York.

Point being: The Tigers aren’t going to be able to stumble into the postseason. The time is now.

According to Katie Strang of ESPN.com, Ausmus would not commit to starting Zimmermann again when asked after Saturday’s game. As Jason Beck covered at MLB.com, the choice is between sitting him or running him out there again so super-rookie Michael Fulmer can have extra rest. Either choice puts more pressure on Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd to get their jobs done. The only one that inspires real confidence is Verlander.

With their starting rotation not well set up for crunch time, the Tigers’ best hope is that they’ll be able to downplay their starting pitching question marks. And this is not a fool’s hope.

One thing they have is an offense that’s been clicking since a July slump, and which is due to get another weapon back when Nick Castellanos returns to the lineup. It’s easy to imagine a lineup with Castellanos, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler and Justin Upton doing some damage.

The Tigers also have a semi-favorable schedule down the stretch. They’re due to play 12 of their final 21 games at home. They also have seven more games against the lowly Minnesota Twins, and they end the season with a trio of games at the lowly Atlanta Braves.

Compare that to what will be happening in the AL East in the next few weeks. The Orioles, Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox, who are just a game ahead of Toronto in the division race, are going to be beating up on each other. That could prevent any of the four from taking off.

What are the odds the Tigers make it? Pretty good, actually. FanGraphs gives them a 40.4 percent chance of earning a wild-card spot. That’s higher than the Orioles, Yankees and Astros have.

A tad optimistic, maybe. But also believable. As much as getting Zimmermann back at full strength would have helped the Tigers, not having him hasn’t slowed them down in the last two months. While their rotation is in a modest state of disarray with him in its plans, at least the Tigers don’t need to risk letting him drag them down.

There are no promises to make. Not in this year’s AL wild-card race. No, sir. But for a team that’s not getting an ace it paid for, the Tigers could be in a worse spot.


Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

Follow zachrymer on Twitter

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com