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.”
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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.
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.
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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.”