Theo Epstein, Carlos Zambrano, and a Story About "Earning His Way Back"

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Theo Epstein, Carlos Zambrano, and a Story About “Earning His Way Back”

Analysis and Commentary, Chicago Cubs News

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.


Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.