Tuesday, February 20, 2007

big z's arbitration day

a firestorm of speculation was unleashed last week when carlos zambrano took a third-person detour on his way to spring training. clearly such comments constitute a bit of public negotiation on the part of the prospective free agent to turn up the pressure on general manager jim hendry in the aftermath of his offseason spending binge.

zambrano and his agents turned down the heat a bit this week, climbing down from what sounded very much like a six-week window to decide zambrano's long-term status. but even so, zambrano is playing this negotiation the only way he seems to know how to play -- heavy on the throttle, light on the caution and one unforeseen circumstance from running off the rails.

at 8pm the evening previous, there is still no announced deal to avoid an arbitration hearing where the cubs have bid just north of $11mm and the self-appointed "big z" set the ask at a very aggressive $15mm (which would make his the largest arbitration award in history by half -- indeed, it will be the largest on record either way). regardless of what any side says, there's a reason the cubs have made it policy to avoid arbitration at almost any cost over the last decade -- it bodes ill for the long-term partnership between player and team that the cubs have relied on over the years to help keep their own. one need only to have looked to south florida over the last couple months as miguel cabrera and the marlins dug in to understand that arbitration hearings are a characteristic of dysfunctional relationships. and zambrano is clearly using the process to make a point to the club -- he knows very well that he's a better pitcher than barry zito, and he wants to be paid like it.

whatever the state of the team's relationship with zambrano, it is going to get a massive injection of stress when talks open up on a long-term deal for the club's most valuable potential free agent starting pitcher since greg maddux left for atlanta -- and it's hard to say how the structure of the relationship will handle it, let alone in the aftermath of an arbitration hearing.

how serious are things? what are the chances of losing zambrano one way or another? in keeping with years of managing expectations under tribco, phil rogers was today assigned to prepare the mob for the possibility of a trade.

If Zambrano insists on a deal for seven or eight years—and he told reporters Thursday he's only looking for five—or if it takes more than $20 million a year to get a shorter contract, then it might be more than general manager Jim Hendry should swallow. That would leave two options:

Let Zambrano play out the season, hoping he will help the team vault into the playoffs only one year after a 66-96, last-place season;

Start shopping him for a trade, most likely at the July 31 deadline but possibly even one as soon as the end of spring training.

Hendry would need an iron fortitude to deal Zambrano, no doubt about that. But there are ways that could work out.

The Cubs could be as good with Zambrano as without him. It sounds crazy, but for as well as Clemens pitched a year ago, the Astros were only 10-9 in his starts. And the Philadelphia Phillies mysteriously started winning after trading their best hitter, Bobby Abreu. It's baseball, and silly stuff happens.

when phil sobers up, we'd like for him to explain in detail how the cubs don't get worse for losing their one bona fide front-of-the-rotation starter and one of the top five starters in the national league. the odds of bringing in a younger and better version of the 25-year-old caballo who refuses to break down like seattle did in shipping mark langston for randy johnson and more are so low that it needn't be discussed.

it's been said here that hendry is between scylla and charibdis with zambrano -- don't envy the man. the fact of rogers' column demonstrates just how deeply into the gray these negotiations are for the team, and only zambrano knows what he would settle for. but this much seems relatively certain -- going to the hearing does nothing to improve the odds of a long-term agreement, and probably will do something to make that harder to achieve.

UPDATE: the cubs say it's headed to a hearing, the first such case for the club since 1993 and mark grace -- some fourteen years ago. the hearing would kick off at 3pm chicago time, so there's still a bit of wiggle room.

UPDATE: the 3pm deadline is past and still no news -- it looks like a hearing.

the point has been made that the deleterious effect of arbitration hearings may be overstated. but even if you put aside the idea that arbitration itself can be a cause of damage to the relationship between player and team — and it surely sometimes can be, even if it needn’t be — the bigger point is that such hearings are a consequence of a dysfunctional relationship.

what would it take to get z to sign? not much more than the cubs' bid, in the grand scheme. and yet the cubs won’t pay it — this team that paid jason marquis $7mm per.

and zambrano obviously knows that a win for him is unlikely, given the immense gap between his $15mm and soriano’s record $10mm. and yet he persists. why?

both sides are either standing on principle or consenting to a rancorous and very public first battle of the negotiation of his long-term future — and that is not a good sign, it seems, no matter how you slice it.

UPDATE: the score reports a deal got done -- one year, $12.5mm. that's good news all the way around, folks.

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