Pitcher Carlos Zambrano of the Chicago Cubs looks to first base during the game against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field on August 12, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)
Theo Epstein had lunch with Carlos Zambrano on Monday at Goose Island in Wrigleyville. (Wish I'd known -- I'd have headed over there, just to watch the show.) Also in attendance were Big Z's agent, Barry Praver, and Cubs director of player personnel Oneri Fleita.
I'm sure Big Z was smiling and friendly and happy, as well as apologetic for the things he's done in the past. Bruce Levine has some details:
"We met today at his request," Epstein said. "It went well. He expressed a strong desire to be a Cub (again) 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."
In the past, former GM Jim Hendry had always welcomed Zambrano back; of course, several of the incidents involving Z had occurred when there was a lot more than just one year left on his contract. The Cubs weren't likely to eat $30 or $40 million worth of contract.
But every time Big Z said it wouldn't happen again, it happened again. How many last chances can you give one person?
In this case, I suppose it isn't a "last chance" from Theo Epstein, since he is new to the Cubs and not familiar -- except from hearing about them from afar -- with all the details of what happened each time Zambrano melted down. There's a hint in Levine's article that he at least knows what occurred.
"Most of the details will stay confidential," Epstein said. "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."
Epstein said that Zambrano seemed sincere and contrite in the meeting, but he's taking a wait-and-see approach.
"From what I understand, he's seemed that way before," Epstein said. "So this is a trust-but-verify situation."
Epstein stayed the course when asked if this decision precludes him from trying to trade Zambrano this offseason.
"Right now, we're going to give him the right to earn his way back as a Cub," Epstein said.
There are some read-between-the-lines things in that quote, so let's examine some of them.
"Seemed sincere". "Sincere and contrite." Sure, he did. Anyone wanting to please his bosses after blowups like the ones he's had would seem that way. Theo appears to understand this when he says, "From what I understand, he's seemed that way before." Zambrano isn't going to have the long rope he had under Hendry, who was responsible for signing Z in 1997 when he was farm director. There was a 14-year history between the two men that does not exist with Theo Epstein.
Clearly, Epstein isn't going to tell sportswriters that he's done with Zambrano -- that would kill any trade value that Z might have. It appears that there are specific things that Z must do before spring training. Whether those things are doable, and whether Z will do them, remains to be seen.
Bringing him back, however, in my opinion, would go against the idea that Epstein is going to begin to change the culture of this organization. For too long, veteran players -- not just Zambrano -- have basically been able to do as they please, regardless of what it does to the team. Eating $18 million worth of contract cannot be an easy thing to do. But retaining Zambrano after all of these incidents would send the same message that Jim Hendry gave out when he gave Z all those last chances: it doesn't matter what you do, we'll take you back.
There is no doubt in my mind that Carlos Zambrano is a fierce competitor who wants to win baseball games very, very much. He is also a tremendously talented athlete who has a very good chance of doing that every time he takes the field.
But in my opinion, the baggage is now too heavy. If Theo Epstein is serious about changing the baseball culture in this organization, he'll do whatever it takes to deal Carlos Zambrano, even if that means eating most (hopefully, not all) of the year remaining on his contract. Maybe Theo's carefully chosen words on Monday were meant to help increase any trade value Zambrano might have; if so, good for Theo.
But if Carlos Zambrano opens the 2012 season in a Cubs uniform, it'll be the same story we rehashed over and over and over under Jim Hendry: player blows up, player says he's sorry (for the fifth time)... and then player does the same thing again.
Theo Epstein, if you really want to change the clubhouse culture of the Cubs organization -- and that is something that's sorely needed -- please begin by trading Carlos Zambrano.