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First, the story.

Yesterday, before heading up to the GM Meetings, Chicago Cubs’ President of Baseball Operations met with Chicago Cubs’ pitcher Carlos Zambrano about a hypothetical return to the team in 2012, after Zambrano walked out on the Cubs in August, and was subsequently placed on the disqualified list. In that lunch meeting, which included VP of Player Personnel Oneri Fleita and Zambrano’s agent, Barry Praver, Epstein laid out the steps necessary for Zambrano to be allowed to rejoin the Cubs for the 2012 season.

“We met today at his request,” Epstein said of the lunch. “It went well. [Zambrano] expressed a strong desire to be a Cub, and an even stronger desire to have a strong 2012 season. He’s in great shape. He’s working out twice a day, pitching down in Venezuela. I told him that we’d let him earn his right back to being a Cub.

“We said he’d have to work hard and that we aren’t welcoming him back unconditionally. We said he’d have to earn his way back.”

Epstein would not reveal the precise steps Zambrano will need to take, but instead spoke generally.

‘‘Nothing was given to him, but [he was told only] that he could earn his way back through very hard work this winter, through rebuilding relationships, man-to-man, with all of his teammates and through some other steps that we discussed,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘So we’re not welcoming him back unconditionally at all. But we’re going to give him the right to earn his way back.

“Most of the details will stay confidential,” Epstein added. “But there are steps he needs to take to earn his way back. If he does so, we will see him in spring training and welcome him back.”

Still, Epstein knows the Cubs have been down this road before with Zambrano, who has come back hat-in-hand and contrite a number of times before.

“From what I understand, he’s seemed that way before,” Epstein said. “So this is a trust-but-verify situation.”

End of story.

There are a handful of times each year when I perceive that the actions of the Chicago Cubs are implicitly designed to generate a public discussion. That is to say, there are times when I can’t help but feel that the narrative is being guided by the actions of management – folks like me are being compelled to talk about a player, a story, a situation, in a certain way.

You know the drill: the Cubs leak word that Sammy Sosa left the park early, or Jim Hendry talks about what an affront Milton Bradley is to the good people of Chicago. The Cubs want us to tell a story, and there are certain times when you can feel that desire.

Well, this is one of those times.

So, what’s the narrative this time? What am I supposed to be saying? That the Cubs are ready to welcome Carlos Zambrano back with open arms, of course. If Zambrano is willing to take the steps necessary to regain the organization’s trust (he is!), and, if Zambrano is in good shape and ready to pitch well in 2012 (he is!), then he’ll be a productive member of the Cubs’ pitching staff in 2012.

That’s the story I’m supposed to tell you. And, so, I’ve told you.

But, make no mistake: the Cubs are not planning on Zambrano being a member of the Cubs in 2012.

I don’t see how the current front office can justify an offseason’s worth of plans – plans they concede include a desperate need for starting pitching – built around an assumption that Carlos Zambrano will be one of their starting pitchers in 2012. Forgive my presumption, but Theo and Jed just ain’t that dim.

So, sure, they allow for that 1% chance that Zambrano gets his act together over the next few months AND a decent trade offer never comes through, and they’re forced to keep him as a member of the Cubs in 2012. But that’s not going to stop them from adding pitching. Even if they have the opportunity to add a couple starters, and the math no longer adds up with Zambrano in the rotation, that’s how they’ll proceed.

Theo’s plan for reinstatement makes for great headlines, makes the Cubs look good, makes Zambrano look good, and ensures that the Cubs grab as much of the ever-diminishing leverage they might have in Zambrano trade discussions.

And it may even culminate in Zambrano pitching for the Cubs in 2012.

Or, well, that’s the story, anyway. But, at least this time, it’s the right story.

  • Katie

    Word.
    Now let the troll beating of the dead horse commence.

  • johnbres2

    “But, make no mistake: the Cubs are not planning on Zambrano being a member of the Cubs in 2012.”

    I really don’t see how you can say that, based on the evidence we have.  It seems to me that Theo is preserving all his options, while he attempts to improve the value of his “asset.”  I am not saying you are wrong; just that, I don’t see it based on what we have seen so far.

    Plus,  your idea that the Cubs send out a company line a few times a year to generate discussion, etc., does not seem valid either, given that we have a totally new Cubs regime in place. 

    Not trying to be negative here–as it is a good column, just stating a couple points….

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      I stand by the sentence that follows the one you quoted as my reasoning. Given Theo/Jed’s track record, I believe it’s sound.

      There’s a difference between saying “Carlos Zambrano will not be a member of the Cubs in 2012,” which I did not say, and “the Cubs are not planning on Zambrano being a member of the Cubs in 2012,” which I did say.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      Plus, your idea that the Cubs send out a company line a few times a year to generate discussion, etc., does not seem valid either, given that we have a totally new Cubs regime in place.

      I know. That’s the point. The new guys are getting the “company line” right this time around.

  • Kyle

    I’m looking forward to disagreeing with you on this all off-season, Brett :)

    Of course the Cubs can’t bring back a player who teammates have called selfish and say must be traded for the team to win, a player who attacked people in the clubhouse, a player who showed up opponents, who threw teammates under the bus to the press, and who destroyed equipment when he had a bad game. Oops, sorry, I got Zambrano’s rap sheet confused with Santo’s again :)

    Theo Epstein has made it very clear that he considers honesty and class to be of the highest importance to him. He flew down to Florida to fire Quade after having a long, personal talk with him. He called Sandberg immediately and let him know he wasn’t a candidate.

    So I can’t believe for one second that he orchestrated all of this dishonestly. If he tells the press in an interview that he’s considering bringing Zambrano back, yeah, that’s just something he has to say to keep his trade value up. But he went above and beyond that: Epstein had Zambrano fly up to Chicago, had dinner with him, and told Zambrano directly that if he followed specific steps, he’d have “earned the right” to return to the team in ST of 2012.

    You’d have to throw out everything we’ve learned about Epstein’s honesty and class to believe that he orchestrated all of that as a media ploy.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      I feel like I have to respond to every comment on this article with a quote from the article, itself… :)

      So, sure, they allow for that 1% chance that Zambrano gets his act together over the next few months AND a decent trade offer never comes through, and they’re forced to keep him as a member of the Cubs in 2012.

      Who said anything about Theo being dishonest? If Zambrano gets his shit together, per the request, he can theoretically return to the Cubs. But only if there’s no trade to be had. It’s not merely a media ploy – it’s hedging your bets, and using the media to your advantage. Seems savvy to me.

      • Kyle

        Well, let me say this:

        If that’s what he plans on doing, I believe that he told Zambrano that at the dinner. Not the “I don’t expect you to really pull it together” part, but the “I’m going to try really hard to trade you” part.

        Stupid Epstein front office being so competent and leak-proof, we’ll never know.

        • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

          And, given Z’s no-trade protection, it’s really not implausible that that’s exactly what happened. Theo knows he’d have to get Z to approve a trade anyway.

          I’m not sure I agree with you, but, I’ll definitely concede it’s a possibility.

        • TWC

          I kinda hope that one of the “steps” that Epstein laid out was to have Zambrano sign away his no-trade rights right then and there.

          “OK, Carlos, work hard, get in shape, apologize to your teammates, and sign this.  You fuck up, you’re gone.”

          • Cubbie Blues

            Wish there was a Like button as in the forum for that one TWC.

      • DRock

        Agreed, Brett. Very savvy move by Epstein to try to show people that Z is an asset when his emotions are under control. He’s trying to get Z to do all these things in the offseason so that other teams might be more inclined to trade for him and doesn’t want to say “we don’t want him”. Because if Theo says, “we don’t want him” then why would other teams want him? Well played, Theo. Love this guy already.

    • johnbres2

      agreed!

  • johnbres2

    edited my previous response–but the sentence you cite puzzles me too: “I don’t see how the current front office can justify an offseason’s worth of plans – plans they concede include a desperate need for starting pitching – built around an assumption that Carlos Zambrano will be one of their starting pitchers in 2012.”

    I agree that they will add starting pitching with or without Z, but I don’t think they need any “assumptions” in this regard.  If we needed only one more starter, I would be more inclined to agree with you.  But we really need 3 more starters, not just one.  Dempster could be in free fall, Wells and Cashner are unproven, and Samardzija is still someone you keep your fingers crossed about.  So there is more then enough room for Z, with or without the successful implementation of an “offeseason’s worth of plans.”

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      If the Cubs were planning on having Zambrano as a starter next year, they’d be pursuing one or two starting pitchers (they’re not going to send Garza or Dempster to the bullpen, so that’s two open spots max, assuming they’re filled externally). I think there’s no chance the Cubs limit their pursuit of starting options on the belief that they’ve absolutely got three spots in the rotation locked up for 2012.

      Again, that’s the distinction between planning on having Z in the rotation in 2012 and permitting the possibility that Z will be a member of the team in 2012.

      • johnbres2

        I totally agree with that.

        • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

          I love reaching consensus.

          So, I think we’re on the same page, we just express it differently. The gist is: the Cubs will be going after plenty of pitchers this Winter, regardless of what happens with Z. And, in my opinion, Theo/Jed would be unwise to go into those trade/free agent/whatever discussions with an assumption in the back of their mind that Z will definitely be one of the starting pitchers next year.

    • jt

      Not to mention, if there’s one thing we learned last season it’s that you can’t have too much pitching depth.

  • Zach

    So on MLBTR they said that type B compensation will be eliminated this offseason. That means that the Cubs will not get any compensation for Aramis.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      Thanks, Zach. Just Tweeted that. Ugh. Here’s the report from Joel Sherman. That would suck.

      I’ll include more on it later, but it would at least make the Cubs’ decision on offering Pena arbitration a much less risky one (that is to say: they wouldn’t offer him arbitration).

    • Fishin Phil

      Well, ain’t that a kick in the acorns?

    • DRock

      We should have traded him at the end of last season to a contender…

      • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

        That would have been the ideal, but Aramis was unwilling to go at the time.

    • hansman1982

      So basically everything to do with the draft this year seems to be some degree of negative against the Cubs

  • Eric

    And that’s how you change the Cubs culture right there. Actually laying some rules down, tough love. Theo: You can come back but you have to do alot of things to show you really want to be here. Laying down rules and expectation and being strict about them in this case, is a good thing. Instead of bashing him and trading him like Hendry would have done, Theo meets with him and shows him some tough love.

  • Steve

    Bunch of bull. If the team had ANY leverage at all, Theo wouldn’t have even met with Z. No decent offer will be made, and they will be stuck with him. Theo is just trying to set up a best case scenario: a tempered Z, that causes no trouble, and isn’t a complete wash/distraction in 2012. I have every reason to believe that “Please, Mr. Zambrano” preceded each and every “condition” he laid out. Carlos can show up to spring training out of shape, pissed off, and pitch like shit…oh, AND refuse any trade: all for what, $18,000,000? Exactly WHAT leverage do the Cubs have here8 Umm…none. Nice try, but I’m not buying it, Theo.

    • Kyle

      Zambrano will be a free agent after 2012. He can collect his $18 million, but if he’s terrible, tha’ts all he’s going to get. If he’s decent, he could be looking at another 8-figure contract.

      He may not be capable of controlling himself, but he has every incentive in the world to do so.

  • JasonB

    If pitching is one of the Cubs’ top priorities this offseason, which is true judging by the report Brett shared last night, then it isn’t that far fetched to me that Epstein has the intention of upholding his end of the bargain and letting Zambrano pitch for the Cubs next year.  At the very least, we (hopefully) get an in shape and committed Zambrano for a few months and then we deal him at the deadline for some value when we’ll likely be out of the race.  I like what Theo did here – put the onus on Z to do something in the offseason to prove that he wants to be here.

  • Coal

    Let me say first that I think Z is an out of shape, selfish jackass. But here’s my logic for why I think Z coming back to the the Cubs in 2012 is a very realistic possiblity.

    Last year was an absolute trainwreck – heck reading this blog is proof of that – all of us were angry as heck by mid-May with the incompetence that was Quade, Hendry, etc. al. So imagine you are an out of shape, selfish jackass that has to live this every day. Might it get to you eventually? And likewise, might you be a candidate to do much better if the environment was stable, calm, and more succesfull-seeming?

    Unless the Cubs can trade Z for somebody who can effectively eat some innings (or move Z for a decent prospect and find somebody else in the system to eat innings) doesn’t he actually have pretty good value to the Cubs? Certainly he’s not worth $18million, but the Cubs would take him for $3-4 million and put up with his “idiosyncracies” – this has ALWAYS been about the extra $15 million they don’t want to pay him.

    I think having Z in place for one more year helps keep a few butts in seats, and solves some issues with the rotation to boot. And I don’t think anybody (except, maybe the Marlins) rolls the dice on him for anything more than $3-4 million. In my opinion, what Theo was trying to do was paint the picture to the media and fans that he’s not a pushover, and that Zambrano only comes back if he toes the line. That would be what I would try to do – convince the fans and media that I’m not a pushover – if I was grudgingly planning on bringing him back.

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