Cubs go slow with Zambrano

MESA, Ariz. -- Big Z says his shoulder is just fine and he'd like to look ahead, rather than back to last season.

Carlos Zambrano is showing no signs of the problems that hampered him last season, although the team is taking a conservative approach with its ace this spring.

"Physically, I feel the best I've ever felt in spring training," Zambrano said Monday after a free-and-easy throwing session against hitters. "I'm not a rookie. I know what to do and I know my job here is to get ready."

Last season he had a stint on the disabled list in June -- his first trip to the DL in six years -- and needed an injection in early September for a sore shoulder. But later that month, he pitched a no-hitter against the Astros in Milwaukee.

Zambrano spent the offseason strengthening his shoulder, and the Cubs sent a trainer to his native Venezuela to work with him.

"It's important," he said. "I won't want that to happen to me again this year."

Zambrano went 14-6 with a 3.91 ERA last season. He was 10-3 with a 2.84 ERA in 18 starts before the All-Star Game -- in which he pitched two innings. But after the break, he was 4-3 in 12 starts with a 5.80 ERA. He also was the loser in Game 2 of the playoffs against the Dodgers when shaky Chicago fielding led to four unearned runs.

He's not scheduled to pitch in a spring training exhibition until next Monday. The Cubs' first game is Wednesday.

"We're holding him back a little bit," manager Lou Piniella said. "Couple more throw days to face hitters and then maybe throw him in a little simulated game."

Zambrano, who signed a five-year, $91.5 million contract in August 2007, has been known for his durability -- 200-plus innings five straight years before last season -- and his emotional demeanor while pitching.

He also talked a big game two years ago when he said he thought he would win the Cy Young Award and the Cubs would win the World Series. Neither happened.

So the bold predictions from Big Z are out. He'd also like to table the subject of his shoulder difficulties of last season.

"Whatever happened last year, I don't want to talk about it. I want to talk about this year. We look good, so far," he said.

Zambrano, one of the best hitting pitchers in baseball with 16 career homers, is dealing with one issue. He's been taking drops for a condition in his right eye. He said Monday he still doesn't know if or when he will need laser surgery.


Relief pitcher Carlos Marmol made a tough decision. He's not going to pitch for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic. Marmol, in competition with Kevin Gregg for the closer's role with the Cubs, said he spent a restless night before making the decision. He said he came to the conclusion that he should stay and work with Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild, adding the closer's competition was not the reason. "I know what I have to do to keep my body ready for the season, and my arm and my mind, what I need to do," Marmol said. "It was a hard decision." Piniella, who had joked earlier with Marmol that while he would be gone, Gregg would be throwing 98 mph, said he told Marmol he'd support whatever decision he made ... Ryan Dempster has been bothered by a stiff neck but threw 50 pitches in a side session Monday. ... With the start of the regular season still six weeks away, Piniella said the Cubs would have to keep a full roster and use a lot of younger players this spring. Especially with 39 exhibition games. "No sense in rushing anybody," Piniella said. He said he wanted starting pitches to get 25-27 innings and hitters to have between 60 and 65 at-bats. He called it a fine line between making sure the players are ready for the regular season and not overusing them because of the long exhibition schedule. The Cubs also have a pair of games against the White Sox in Las Vegas and wrap up their exhibition schedule in the new Yankee Stadium. "I got to pace myself," Piniella said. "Imagine the players."