PHOENIX – The Cubs aren’t waiting around for Jon Lester to make a splash this winter for frontline starting pitching.
Multiple sources said Tuesday the Cubs are in talks with the Washington Nationals to acquire right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, a two-time All-Star who has averaged 200 innings over the past three seasons.
And he’s just one of several All-Star caliber pitchers – along with All-Star catcher Russell Martin – the Cubs believe they can acquire if their strategy plays out according to plan, said one source.
Zimmermann, 28, would be a younger, potentially less-expensive alternative to the higher-end free agents on the market this off-season, though the player package to acquire him would have to include at least one of their touted young middle infielders, sources say.
One source said the teams have enough mutual interest that names have been discussed. Another said he expected the Cubs to complete the deal – along with Cardinals free agent Justin Masterson, who blamed minor injuries for season-long struggles in 2014 after a 2013 All-Star season.
Masterson is said to be willing to sign a low-cost one-year deal for a chance to prove himself in spring training, possibly similar to the $1 million deal the Cubs gave James McDonald last winter.
Lester, considered by some executives the most valuable free agent starter on the market, is still in play for the Cubs, say insiders, along with buy-low/upside guys such as Rockies free agent Brett Anderson, veteran bench guys such as Athletics free agent outfielder Jonny Gomes and bullpen help.
The suddenly cash-flush Cubs are involved in trying to build the big-league roster from so many different directions this winter that they’ve also checked in on Tigers free agent outfielder Torii Hunter, 39, for Hunter’s widely recognized leadership influence, a source close to Hunter confirmed.
Enough teams are involved in Hunter, though, that he’s not expected to land on the North Side.
Closing a deal for Zimmermann could become the signature move for the fourth-year Cubs front office if the team’s young hitting core develops over the next two years as planned.
The Wisconsin native, who has made 32 starts each of the last three seasons for contending teams, makes $16.5 million in the final year of his contract in 2015.
He turned down a five-year, $85-million extension offer last year before agreeing to a two-year deal that suddenly makes him a trade candidate this winter. The Nationals believe they have enough starting pitching depth to trade Zimmermann and remain competitive instead of paying his price, and his value won’t be any higher in July than it is now.
The Cubs, who likely will need assurances they can extend Zimmermann to finalize a deal, initiated the talks, according to a source, recognizing the Nationals’ need for the kind of middle-infield help – second base, in particular — that is an organizational strength for the Cubs.
Neither club would comment on the talks, though Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer acknowledged the Cubs might fill needs via trade before diving into the deep end of free agency.
“You have to explore both,” he said. “There’s going to be some interplay between the free agent starting pitching market and the trade starting pitching market. … It’s just a question of how it plays out.”