Posted: Monday March 26, 2007 12:14PM; Updated: Monday March 26, 2007 3:05PM
So, given some of those hefty numbers and the certainty that, next winter, they'll probably be even heftier, both sides are busy burning up calculator batteries and wording contract proposals just right. Yet the question remains: Can Hendry and Zambrano -- represented by agents Barry Praver, Tommy Miranda and Scott Shapiro -- pull this off?
Indications are that they're getting there. Sources close to the talks say that the two sides have agreed that any extension will be for five years. That could be five years in addition to the 2007 season -- Zambrano and the Cubs beat the salary arbitration buzzer earlier this winter when they agreed on a $12.4 million contract for '07 -- or the two sides could rip up this year's contract and start anew. That's not clear. Neither Hendry nor Zambrano's reps are being very forthcoming about terms, which is probably a good sign that they're heading in the right direction.
The fact that the two sides are talking is encouraging for those who want this deal to get done. Praver was in Arizona last week, where he talked with Hendry. He left late in the week without a deal, but both he and Hendry point out that they don't need to be in the same room, or even in the same time zone, to get this thing nailed down.
As the Cubs and Zambrano's people do their things, the pitcher is busy doing his, preparing for the season as the team's most flamboyant and important player. "The Bull," it says on the back of his chair in the Ho Ho Kam clubhouse, and nobody in Chicago -- or anywhere else for that matter -- doubts it.
Zambrano has made at least 31 starts and thrown no fewer than 209 2/3 innings in each of the past four years. He is imposing (6-foot-5 and probably more than the 250 pounds at which the Cubs list him), a hard thrower with a fiery streak who has been in the National League's Top 10 in strikeouts in each of the past three years and in the NL's Top 10 in ERA in each of the past four. During the past four years, he ranks behind only the Twins' Johan Santana and Oswalt in ERA [see chart]. He's also, arguably, the best-hitting pitcher in baseball. He certainly is the strongest, with 10 career home runs, more than any other active pitcher.
And did we mention that he's not 26 until June 1, which makes him younger than anybody else on that Top 10 list but Marlins lefty Dontrelle Willis? With all that going for him, "El Toro" is not about to get all worked up about a little piece of paper that spells out what he might get paid in the future. Not a chance.
"I don't have any distractions about that at all. Believe me. I know, if I don't sign with the Cubs, there are many other teams interested. I don't think about it," Zambrano said the day after Yankee Fan made him laugh. "Look, last year, I made good money. This year, I'm making good enough money to live. Let's say if I got hurt ... who can't live on $12.4 million? I think you can live on that, with a good life. That's why I don't worry about that."
The truth is, if anybody should be worried in this negotiation, it's the Cubs. Granted, it has to be hard to open up the Tribune Co. coffers and pay the kind of money that Zambrano must be asking. But the Cubs have millions of fans to please. They need a leader like Zambrano for their fractured pitching staff. You could argue, without much effort, that signing Zambrano is the fiscally prudent thing to do, given the rapidly rising cost for starting pitching.
Signing him won't be easy, by any stretch of the checkbook. Just as an educated guess, the two sides are probably talking about a figure north of Oswalt's average annual value of $14.6 million and one that is closing in on Zito's $15.75 million. And don't be surprised, given this market, if it's more.
So, the total for the deal, over five years: Think somewhere between $75-78 million. And, yeah, it could be higher.
Hendry, understandably unwilling to say too much as this negotiation winds its way into the final fragile week, can't help but praise his ace. How could he? "He's got as good a stuff as you'll see," the general manager said last weekend. "And he's never been anything but a good kid."
Zambrano, as he has often in the past months and years, reiterated his desire to stay with the team that signed him as an undrafted free agent almost 10 years ago. "El Toro" also talks of winning a World Series with the Cubs -- it's been a while, you may know -- and of winning a Cy Young award to match his fellow Venezuelan, the Twins' superb left-hander, Santana.
"This is the team that saw me grow up, in the minor leagues and now in the big leagues," Zambrano said, his voice soft in a nearly deserted clubhouse. "Even if it doesn't work out long-term with the Cubs, I still have to do a good job [this season], 'cause I love this game. And I feel for this team. For many years they haven't won anything.
"You know how many people in the past, past Cubs players -- Ernie Banks, Ferguson Jenkins, Billy Williams -- many good players that haven't won a World Series? So if we do it this year, it'd be special. You'd be part of something special. It's being in the right time, the right place -- the right year. I think this is the right year to do it. We have a great team, great chemistry. We want to do it."
If not this year with the Cubs, will Zambrano be able to try again next year, and the year after, and for a few more after that? Or will the Cubs stumble in their attempt to sign him and allow him to see what's out there?
Will the Evil Empire and Yankee Fan get a crack at Zambrano next winter?
"I like the Yankees, but I don't see myself pitching at Yankee Stadium. Too many rules," he said with a laugh. "If I play in New York, it's going to be with the Mets. First of all, because I get to hit. And I love hitting.
"I can't say ... that I would never play for the Yankees. Hopefully no, but you never know. This is a business."
Never more for Zambrano and the Cubs than this week.