Cubs should keep their eyes on Jordan Zimmermann


Cubs should keep their eyes on Jordan Zimmermann

Denard Span walked toward Wrigley Field’s visiting dugout on Monday morning and noticed Jordan Zimmermann talking with two reporters.

“He’s not signing with the Cubs,” Span said, disappearing down into the tunnel and writing the lede even before his first-inning leadoff home run slammed off the right-field video board for the Washington Nationals, setting the tone in a 2-1 victory.

Unless something dramatically changes, Zimmermann also isn’t signing with the Nationals, at least not right now, not this close to hitting the open market, not with Washington having to make so many difficult decisions on its core players.

The Cubs have kept their eyes on Zimmermann for a long time, identifying him as a top target as they look for potential opportunities to upgrade as this window of contention begins to open.

The Cubs will get another up-close look at Zimmermann (4-2, 3.52 ERA) on Tuesday night, and it’s not too early to start daydreaming about the 29-year-old right-hander in a rotation that already features Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta.

“Obviously, they got a good ballclub full of young talent,” Zimmermann said. “I’m not looking forward to free agency quite yet. I’m focused on this year and trying to win a World Series with the Nats.”

[MORE CUBS: Bryce Harper takes aim at Wrigley Field]

The file goes back to at least Zimmermann’s time at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, when current Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio helped out the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh program and watched him dominate Division III hitters.

The Chicago Sun-Times jumped the gun during the general manager meetings last November, reporting the Cubs were in talks to acquire Zimmermann. A Cubs official immediately and unequivocally shot down that report.

Two agents at the Arizona Biltmore floated the theory the Nationals would try to smoke out interest in a Zimmermann trade and make a play for Max Scherzer, who would go to Washington on a seven-year, $210 million megadeal.

“It is what it is,” Zimmermann said. “You never know what’s going to happen in baseball. Obviously, when they signed Max, I figured I’d probably be getting traded someplace. But (Nationals GM) Mike Rizzo called me and said I’m staying put.

“That was a weight off my shoulders there. I didn’t have to worry about it and could get ready for spring training knowing I was going down to Florida.”

There were rumblings that Zimmermann’s camp would use Lester’s contract as a baseline and want to make a deal somewhere north of that reference point.

[MORE CUBS: Like Cubs, Bryce Harper would've stuck Kris Bryant in minors]

It’s unclear if the Cubs will really have the resources to go all-in again and top six years and $155 million for another frontline pitcher. There should also be several other options this winter (David Price, Jeff Samardzija, etc.).

But Theo Epstein’s front office has been creative while working within the franchise’s financial limitations. To get through October, the Cubs will have to buy or trade for pitching after assembling so many young hitters. 

Zimmermann also has strong roots in the Midwest, growing up in Auburndale, Wisconsin, which is about four hours northwest of Wrigley Field.

“I’m not going to get into that right now,” Zimmermann said. “I’m just focused on the year, and we’ll see what this offseason brings.”

In terms of mileage, Zimmermann has pitched less than 1,000 innings in the big leagues, recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2009. He won 19 games in 2013 and has been an All-Star and received Cy Young votes in each of the last two seasons.

The Nationals selected Zimmermann in the second round of the 2007 draft, and he’s helped them grow into one of the game’s premier franchises.

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Nationals viewed the Cubs as a trading partner because they needed middle-infield protection in case All-Star shortstop Ian Desmond leaves after this season. Span and right-hander Doug Fister are also in their walk years, giving Washington a sense of urgency.   

Zimmermann knows what’s at stake, but he insists it won’t be a distraction. The Cubs will be watching.

“I don’t think there’s any added pressure,” Zimmermann said. “We’re here to play baseball. It’s something we’ve been doing our whole lives. Just because free agency is a year away – for me, anyway – it doesn’t add any pressure.

“I still have to go out there and throw the baseball and pitch well and do my job. And everything else will take care of itself.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.