The offseason for the Chicago Cubs is in full swing, and, with every additional move made, the question of Carlos Zambrano’s future with the Chicago Cubs will linger in the background.

Zambrano walked out on the Cubs in August, and didn’t throw another pitch for the team in 2011. All signs pointed to another ugly separation between the Cubs and a former employee, including owner Tom Ricketts saying he had a hard time envisioning Zambrano pitching again for the Cubs.

But that was under the old boss, Jim Hendry. New boss Theo Epstein, not eager to make any rash decisions – but equally keen to Zambrano’s history – met with Zambrano, who is currently trying to get his baseball side right, about getting his mental side right. There, he laid out the steps Zambrano would need to take to earn his spot back with the team, but elected to keep those steps private.

We haven’t heard much about it since, and, with Zambrano on the shelf in Venezuela after taking a liner off the face (he’s expected to finally make another start soon), it hasn’t been on most folks lips of late (a stray Ozzie Guillen comment aside). But Epstein opened up a bit at the Winter Meetings on the subject of his wayward starter.

“From a talent standpoint, I am optimistic,” Epstein said of a good 2012 season for Zambrano as a Cub. “He’s thrown real well in Venezuela, and his velocity is back. As far as his attitude, I think it’s in the right place right now.”

Epstein went on to describe his mid-November meeting with Zambrano and his agent, Barry Praver.

“I listened when I first got here, and a lot of people told me he’s been in this place before and it’s fallen apart when there’s been any kind of adversity on the field or in the clubhouse,” Epstein said. “He has to prove himself. It’s not enough to say things are better. I told him that to his face when we met.

“I said, ‘You have to go out and prove it. Words don’t matter any more, it’s a matter of actions. There’s going to be a lot of people who don’t believe it, no matter what you say or do, and it’ll be a bigger burden than usual on you until your last strike.'”

In the end, Epstein says he believes Zambrano could successfully return to the Cubs.

“Am I hopeful or optimistic? I think it can work,” Epstein said. “He’s got to demonstrate through his actions and consistent actions that it will work, and he has a chance to be a really good pitcher.”

Would you expect Epstein to say anything else? The smart money says Zambrano is still very much on the block, whatever the Cubs’ pitching needs. And, when that phone rings with the first acceptable offer, Zambrano will be gone.

My guess is, if Zambrano returns to the Cubs in 2012, it will have a whole lot less to do with him satisfying the conditions of his return, and a whole lot more to do with that phone not ringing.



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