Jordan Zimmermann, the right-hander in baseball most coveted by the Cubs’ organization, patiently stood on the field in the rain before Monday’s game talking about his pending free agency and trying to say as little as possible about Chicago.
That’s when Washington Nationals teammate Denard Span walked by and decided to answer for him.
“He’s not signing with the Cubs,” Span said, before descending into the dugout and out of sight.
It drew laughs. But if Span is right it’s only because Zimmermann could be priced out of the Cubs’ range by the time he hits what figures to be a healthy, wealthy market for starting pitching at the end of this season (including David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, and possibly Zack Greinke).
It won’t be for lack of interest from a club that rated him last winter as its top right-handed target, whether in 2014-15 trade or 2015-16 free agent. It created enough buzz during the Cubs’ aggressive off-season that sources suggested activity between the clubs at that time.
“You never know what’s going to happen in baseball,” said Zimmermann, a Wisconsin native who still lives just a few hours from Chicago. “Obviously, when they signed Max [Scherzer], I figured I’d probably be getting traded someplace.
“Mike Rizzo called me,” he said of the Nationals general manager, “and said I’m staying put. That was a lot of pressure, a lot of 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.”
Whether the Cubs can find enough in the 2016 payroll to make the kind of run it’ll take to land Zimmermann, tonight’s starting pitcher for the Nationals is viewed by some in the Cubs’ organization as the kind of player who would push the Cubs from growing competitor to instant contender.
The Nationals made him available last winter for a blow-me-away trade offer after he turned down a five-year, $85 million offer. He makes $16.5 million this year.
Zimmermann, 29, also turned down a more recent offer to negotiate an extension and is said to consider Jon Lester’s $155 million deal with the Cubs a starting point in free agent talks.
With the team’s baseball spending still limited in part by purchase-debt restrictions that have another four years to run, it’s hard to foresee another megadeal in the Cubs’ immediate future.
But a Cubs’ front office gaining a reputation for creative financing is sure to take a shot at tempting the two-time All-Star – a tough-guy competitor who pitched his final season of college ball with his broken jaw wired shut (after getting hit in batting practice).
“Obviously, they’ve got a good ballclub, full of young talent,” Zimmermann said. “I’m not looking forward to free agency quite yet. My focus is on this year and trying to win a World Series with the Nats.”
What about the chance to do that with the Cubs after this year? Or to play close to home? Not to mention money.
“I think you take all that into consideration,” he said. “But it’s not something I’m thinking about now.”