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Just Pay the Man
by Mike Maloney (MLB)
Posted on February 19, 2007, 11:41 PM

The Chicago Cubs are inching closer to making yet another stupid decision in their long and storied franchise history. The same team that sent Greg Maddux packing after his first year in a seven-year streak where his ERA was below 3.00. Maddux had spent 7 years with the Cubs, netting 15 wins or more in 5 of those seasons. He then went to the Atlanta Braves after the Cubs opted not to re-sign the pitcher, instead pursuing players such as Jose Guzman, Dan Plesac, and Candy Maldonado. Maddux went on to help lead the Braves to ten straight division titles and became arguably the greatest Atlanta Braves pitcher ever.

The Cubs have made many other mistakes when dealing with players (Sending ace Dontrelle Willis to Florida, for example), but Greg Maddux is always the first one people think of when thinking of the Chicago Cubs. But now itís 2007, and Greg Maddux has come and gone, come back and gone again. Chicagoís clear number one pitcher is Carlos Zambrano, who will coincidentally enough be entering his seventh season with the Cubs this year. And as each day goes by, it seems more and more likely that it could be Zambranoís final season.

"Whatever happens, I don't want to know [anything] about a contract during the season. I want to sign with the Cubs before the season starts. If they don't sign me, sorry, but I must go. That's what Carlos Zambrano thinks." [1]

Now, Carlos has amended his statement slightly since initially reporting the above in an interview a couple weeks ago. Late last week Carlos had the following to say:

"They have the first look, I didn't say that if they don't sign me before the end of spring training I will not sign with the Cubs. I didn't say that. I just said they have 'til the beginning of the season; if not, I don't want to talk about [a] contract during the season." [2]

Zambrano made $6.5 million dollars last year. After going 16-7 as one of the few bright spots on an overall poor Cubs team that finished in dead last in the NL Central, Zambrano has asked that the Cubs pay him $15.5 million in 2007. Chicago has countered with an offer of a little over $11 million. Currently, the two sides are scheduled for an arbitration hearing tomorrow (Tuesday), however Zambrano was quoted as saying that itís "85 to 90 percent that we don't go to arbitration" [3].

Arbitration or not, Cubs fans have to be worried at the way management has been handling the situation with their All-Star pitcher. The organization has surprisingly let the purse strings loose, spending almost $300 million in contracts for current and new Cubs players, a situation previously unheard of for the organization. There is speculation that the reason for the large increase in payroll is due to a pending sale of the Cubs by their parent company, The Tribune Company, which is currently in negotiations to sell off parts of its assets, the Cubs included. Whatever the reason may be, the fact is that Chicagoís ownership has paid a lot of money to a lot of people, most of whom arenít as talented or as valuable to the club as Carlos Zambrano.

Aramis Ramirez re-signed for a 5-year deal worth $75 million, Alfonso Soriano was the big free agent pickup signing an 8-year $136 million dollar contract, Cliff Floyd signed a contract worth up to $17.5 million over 2 years, Jason Marquis signed a 3-year $21 million deal, and Ted Lilly signed a 4-year, $40 million contract. It could be argued that Zambrano is better than all of these players, certainly better than all of the pitchers mentioned, and as such, he should be paid accordingly. If the Cubs are willing to spend an average of $10 million a year on a pitcher (Lilly) who has only had one year with an ERA below 3.50, then certainly Zambrano is justified in asking for a $15 million a year price tag.

In addition to comparing Zambranoís salary requests with the salaries of his teammates, itís easy to see that Carlos would be able to pull in the number he desires, especially after Barry Zito signed a 7-year, $126 million contract with the San Francisco Giants in the offseason. Zambrano is only 25 years old, has a long career ahead of him, and would be one of the most sought after free agents should he choose to leave the Cubs. If Chicago doesnít feel heís worth the money, another team definitely will.

The Cubs need to also look at this decision from a fan standpoint. Cubs fans are growing restless, and they want their team to win a World Series. After seeing how close the team got in 2003, they feel that itís something that can happen. However, in order for that to happen, the organization has to put together a good team, and not overpay a bunch of mediocre players and fool the fans into thinking that spending money equals wins. Carlos Zambrano is one of those players that is worth the money, period. In fact, there is only one other player on the team who fits into that category, and that is Derrek Lee (Rich Hill and Mark Prior could also apply depending on how their seasons go this year). These are the franchise players that help a team win games, and these are the players that fans go to the games to see.

Hopefully, Zambrano is correct, and the two sides will work out a deal for this year and avoid arbitration. In addition, hopefully General Manager Jim Hendry will be able to work out a new long-term deal with Zambrano before Opening Day. While Zambrano has amended his previous statement and will not leave if he canít work out a deal before Opening Day, everyone knows that Carlos wants this done with before the season starts, and doesnít want to have this looming over head all season. There are not words to describe what a huge mistake it would be to let ĎBig Zí leave due to free agency because the Cubs wouldnít pay what Zambrano wanted. If this were the Tampa Bay Devil Rays being discussed, that would be a different situation. But a team that just spent $300 million on an array of players of various talents can certainly write up one more big contract for the best player in the entire organization. Greg Maddux was shown the door after seven years with the team. Letís hope management has learned from past mistakes and will show Carlos Zambrano the money when itís all said and done.

1. Zambrano says he'll walk if Cubs don't sign him
2. Cubsí Zambrano backs off threat to leave club
3. Zambrano expects to sign one-year deal

All salary figures taken from ESPN.com

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