'Big Z' center of attention at Cubs camp
Zambrano's contract the focus as Piniella opens up shop
MESA, Ariz. -- New Cubs manager Lou Piniella greeted pitchers and catchers on Wednesday at Fitch Park, although Opening Day starter Carlos Zambrano was not among them.
Piniella said Zambrano called to say he would be landing around 8 p.m. MT on Wednesday in Phoenix.
"I was wondering if I was supposed to pick him up at the airport," Piniella said, laughing.
Zambrano will be the center of attention on Thursday during the first workout. The right-hander has an arbitration hearing scheduled for Feb. 20, but on Monday night, he said if he didn't get a mega deal, that he would leave after this season. Zambrano will be a free agent after 2007.
Cubs general manager Jim Hendry had not spoken to Zambrano's agents on Wednesday, and said he wasn't worried about the situation.
"Arbitration is part of the process for five-plus [year] players," Hendry said. "From our standpoint, we've made a commitment to try to make it work. We'll continue to try to keep Carlos in house."
Zambrano, who made $6.5 million last season, is seeking $15.5 million this year. The Cubs have countered with an offer of $11.025 million.
"My preference would be in this case not to go [to a hearing]," Hendry said. "When you get into the kind of money that's being talked about and the numbers filed, I don't think anyone in the five-plus category received the number we filed. We'll do what we always do; we try to treat our players fairly and honestly."
Piniella said he did not expect Zambrano's statements or contract status to be a distraction.
"He's a competitive young man and wants to get at it," Piniella said. "I don't anticipate any problems at all. I know he's a heck of a pitcher, and he'll be getting the ball on Opening Day for us."
The Cubs are hoping this isn't the last Opening Day start for Big Z with Chicago either.
"I'm certain that in a perfect world, Carlos would rather work a deal out with us," Hendry said. "Hopefully, it'll be before Opening Day and if not, we'll table it for a later time."
Piniella may know who's starting April 2 against Cincinnati, but he's got to sort out the rest of the rotation. There are at least eight candidates for five spots.
"If you look at the numbers from last year, you see a staff that obviously has a lot of ability," Piniella said. "They led the National League in strikeouts, so there's fine stuff here. Now we have to figure out how to walk less people. In Wrigley Field, that's not good."
As far as the bullpen goes, it's a matter of finalizing what will likely be a very veteran corps and determining who handles the long-man duties.
Piniella has something else in mind.
"What I'd like to do more than anything else, too, is that by the time we leave here, we have a little Cubby swagger," Piniella said. "That's something that we'll be talking about as Spring Training goes on. By that I want a nice, quiet confidence that we're going to go out and compete every day and play good baseball games and win a majority of them."
Whether it's easier to learn how to throw a slider or develop swagger in seven weeks remains to be seen.
"You do that by being prepared, you do that by working hard, by having a little passion for what you do, by taking pride in what you do, by going out and believing in your teammates and winning baseball games," Piniella said.
The Cubs marketing staff has come up with the slogan, "Play Like There's No Tomorrow," and a new 70-foot high sign on Ontario Street in downtown Chicago featuring Alfonso Soriano touts that message. Piniella's preferred word is "swagger." Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood knows what he's talking about.
"I think we have enough guys here, new guys who weren't part of it last year, and guys who were part of it last year who have something to prove," Wood said. "Last year's over. For me, I'm coming in and just trying to be ready for the season to start. Everything else for me will fall into place.
"Once we get everybody here and start hanging out, and getting to know each other, you develop that swagger as you start to win," he said.
It's hard to have much of a swagger when a team only wins 66 games as the Cubs did last season.
"I like the word 'swagger' so we'll call it a swagger," Piniella said. "It's not cockiness or anything else. It's a confident demeanor -- you go out and compete and play hard and play to win. If you get beat, you tip your cap but you come back and do the same thing. If you do that with the talent level we have here, you'll have a very successful season."
Some of the players may be disappointed to learn that does not mean Piniella will be adding to the highlight reel of his animated base-kicking, hat-throwing videos.
"I'm looking forward to seeing one or two of those this year, if for no other reason than it would be him sticking up for us as a team," pitcher Scott Eyre said.
There's a rumor that the Cub players have a pool on when Piniella will go ballistic.
"I can't comment on that," Eyre said. "I haven't heard -- but I'd get in on that. I also have the means to make that happen."
Catcher Michael Barrett is eager to get to know the new skipper.
"I think we should be pretty compatible," Barrett said. "We're both passionate, fiery guys. I'm excited to play for a manager who's been in the game for so long and has more than 1,000 wins as a manager."
"I'm pretty easy to play for," Piniella said. "I want the guys to have some fun, but I want them to work hard. What we're here to do is get them in shape and also improve them, get them to be the best ballplayer, best pitcher, best position player they can possibly be. That's what we're going to strive for.
"We'll do things basically the same as every Major League club does," he said. "We'll work on fundamentals, execution and just let them play. Players win baseball games on the field by how they perform. We'll make it nice and comfortable for them. We're here to win baseball games and we're here to prepare for a championship season."
Forget about 2006. The Cub players have.
"I already wiped out last year," Eyre said. "That's what nightmares are made of. We're looking forward to this year. We want to have a good time and win some games."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.