Carlos Zambrano again offers promises

MESA, Ariz. -- OK, let's play Fill in the Blank.

We should believe the 2011 new-and-improved Carlos Zambrano is different from the 2010 new-and-improved Zambrano because … ?

"He's a little bit more mature," Chicago Cubs catcher Geovany Soto said. "He had a little problem in the past with the anger issue. He took care of that. … He's taking his work a lot more seriously and he's preparing a lot better for this season than he has in the past. I think he's learned from his past experiences."

Cubs Opening Day starter Ryan Dempster, your turn.

"I think people don't realize really what a good guy he is," said Dempster, the closest thing to the team's conscience. "He's a great father. He's funny. Extremely playful. A great practical joker. He's got that side that people don't see. They always see the side that's him busting up a Gatorade machine because we show that over and over and over again."

And go ahead, give it a shot, Cubs general manager Jim Hendry.

"We're all hopeful that Z is finally at the age [29] and has been through enough -- a few incidents in his day -- that he's learned from them," said Hendry, who did the tough-love thing with Zambrano last season. "I know people don't believe this all the time, but 90 percent of the time, he's been really a good guy, a good guy off the field."

But it's that other 10 percent that should scare the Cubs.

Everybody wants to believe that Zambrano, the former No. 1 rotation guy for the Cubs, is different. Wait -- not just different, but better. They want to believe that Zambrano will at last justify not only the five-year, $91.5 million contract he signed in 2007 but, more important, the patience that Cubs teammates and management have shown with him.

"The reason you believe is because he took some time off and he came back as good as we've seen him in a while, as consistent as we've seen him in a while and, my sense is, as relaxed as we've seen him in a while," manager Mike Quade said. "I'm a horse player. I love taking a look at a horse's last six, seven, eight weeks. He showed up at the end of the season the guy that we need and want to see. That's the only guy I'm expecting to see."


Dempster He's got that side that people don't see. They always see the side that's him busting up a Gatorade machine because we show that over and over and over again.


-- Cubs starter Ryan Dempster

If I were handicapping the 2011 Big Z Race, I'd pick him to finish out of the money. But I'm not what you'd call a Zambrano Believer. I've seen too many of his on-mound or in-dugout meltdowns. I've witnessed his baseball commitment go down and his weight go up since he signed that big-money deal. I've heard too many of his annual promises of change. Zambrano leads the major league in the bait-and-switch.

Had I been Hendry, I would have tried to trade Zambrano in the offseason, when his 8-0 record and 1.41 ERA over his final 11 starts was still fresh in the minds of pitching-starved GMs. Addition by subtraction.

But the Cubs didn't force the issue, partly because Zambrano had a no-trade clause, partly because they wouldn't have received anything close to equal value and partly because they might have had to eat part of his salary. And nobody will come out and say it, but maybe no other team wanted to deal with the cluster headache that can be Zambrano.

Zambrano didn't have "little" anger issues, as Soto said, but very public ones. And does anybody really think Zambrano's outbursts, usually directed at showing up his teammates, were limited to what Cubs fans saw on the field?

Early last season, the Cubs demoted Zambrano to the bullpen, which is exactly where he belonged. The day after his "historic" (Hendry's word) June 25, 2010, hissy fit/confrontation in the dugout with the respected Derrek Lee, Zambrano was placed on the suspended list. Anger management therapy came next. And it worked.

So the Cubs hope, anyway.

"He got some help last year after everything that went on, and he's been great ever since," said Dempster, whom Zambrano congratulated after Quade named him the Opening Day pitcher. "So for me as a teammate and a friend of his, I give him the benefit of the doubt that he's made those adjustments."

The Cubs need Zambrano as much as Zambrano needs the Cubs. They need the 30-plus starts and 188-plus innings he gave them between 2003 and 2008, when he averaged about 15 wins per season.

He isn't the same pitcher he was three years ago. The numbers on the radar gun say that much. But Soto said the power sinker, the slider and a cutter to lefties still work.

"He's still got his stuff," Soto said.

But it isn't his arm the Cubs should be worried about. It's his head. Has Zambrano really changed, or are we waiting for another Zambrano detonation?

The Cubs aren't favored to finish higher than third, maybe fourth in the National League Central this season -- behind the Cincinnati Reds, the Milwaukee Brewers and even the Adam Wainwright-less St. Louis Cardinals. Then again, the San Francisco Giants weren't the favorites to reach the World Series and win.

Strangeness happens.

Zambrano has been part of the Cubs' strangeness in recent years. Too much of it. Now, they'd like for him to be part of an unexpected resurgence. Enough already with the yearly drama club appearances.

"I believe a lot in Z," Soto said.

"Let's give him some credit for coming back, rectifying it and finishing up very, very well -- not just for winning the games, but for the way he handled himself and the way he interacted with his teammates," Hendry said. "Hopefully he picks up where he left off."

New season, new Zambrano. That's the Cubs' dream scenario. One Cubs front-office person raved to me about Zambrano's gentle soul, his sensitive nature and his sweet personality.

Fair enough. Maybe I need a new Zambrano outlook, too.

So I approached him in the Cubs' clubhouse during the 30-minute media window for player interviews.

"Carlos, do you have a few minutes?"

"I've got to stretch my arm," he said, barely turning to look.


"Yeah. Maybe."

That's how I feel about the 2011 Zambrano.


Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.