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Z-Day

MESA, Ariz. -- The guy standing near the dugout at Ho Ho Kam Park last week was a Yankees fan. By definition, that meant he had something to say. And he was damn well going to get it said.

"Hey, Carlos," the young Bronx Babbler yelled as the Cubs' man-mountain of an ace, Carlos Zambrano, strode off the field after another Spring Training workout. "See you next year with the Yankees."

Zambrano stopped dead in his spikes on the top step of the dugout. He cocked his head, ever so slightly. He pointed at Yankee Fan, just to let him know the comment was heard. He smiled. And then he loped down into the darkness of the dugout and up into the Cubs' clubhouse without a word.

This is it for Zambrano and the Cubs. This is the week. This is where all the talk has led us. Either he and his agents and the Cubs come to some kind of an agreement on a contract extension before Opening Day -- next Monday afternoon in Cincinnati -- or Zambrano calls off all the contractual shop talk as he's said he will, pitches the 2007 season with the not-insignificant contract he already has and, next winter, instantly becomes the most drooled-over pitcher on the free-agent market since Barry Zito.

If he signs this week, Zambrano probably won't get Zito-type money, at least not in total dollars. (His annual average salary could come close, though. More on that a little later.) But barring a signing this week, or a debilitating injury sometime this season, Zambrano would almost certainly land a deal next winter from some overheated team that would make Zito's seven-year, $126 million contract with the Giants -- the richest ever for a pitcher -- look like something you'd pick out of the greeting card aisle at a SuperTarget.

Gentlemen, start your rhetoric.

To be fair, the two sides in this high-stakes negotiation have been talking for weeks now, managing admirably to keep a lid on any public posturing. The reason for that is refreshingly simple in this often complicated contract pas de deux: Zambrano wants to stay in Chicago. And the Cubs want him to stay. It makes sense for both sides -- almost too much sense in a game where fiscal sanity struck out a long time ago.

But will it happen? Will the Cubs swallow hard and pay a pitcher the kind of dough Zambrano commands? Will Zambrano forsake a chance at possibly millions more on next winter's free agent market for the security and relatively hassle-free chance to make millions now? (Or, of course, possibly risk millions by not signing and getting injured.)

Nobody knows at this point, but there is a recent trend in baseball toward locking up young talent before it hits the dollar-dopey free-agent market. A couple very cogent examples:

• The Astros gave their ace, Roy Oswalt, a five-year contract extension last August worth $73 million. It already looks like a bargain.

• The Cardinals slapped down $63.5 million for five seasons' worth of a contract extension for their stud starter, Chris Carpenter. A veritable blue-light special, that one.

The Cubs, too, have been all-too happy to try to keep their players happy recently. A few examples:

• Among the nearly $300 million that Cubs general manager Jim Hendry shelled out this winter for players was $75 million (over five years) to lock up third baseman Aramis Ramirez before he had a chance to wade into the free-agent market.

• Last April, Hendry signed first baseman Derrek Lee to a five-year, $65 million extension.

• Hendry also talked pitcher Kerry Wood into a one-year contract over the winter during the period that the Cubs had exclusive negotiating rights to him, and the year before that the GM signed closer Ryan Dempster to a three-year extension.

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.

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