By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) I’m done with Carlos Zambrano. The Cubs, however, may not be.
Theo Epstein may actually be bringing the one-man Baseball Idiot Circus back for another Chicago tour, prepared to watch the combustible Venezuelan play every part: red-nosed clown, tightrope-walker, roaring lion, and rogue elephant needing multiple tranquilizer darts.
Truth is, he’s a Cub until he’s not a Cub, no matter how obvious it was that the previous regime had reached a point of no return. He’s owed $18 million for the upcoming season, the new brains in charge don’t care what Jim Hendry thought, and Tom Ricketts says he won’t be involved.
“If you have Zambrano and Garza and Dempster, and fill in with the other two guys, and have a bullpen like we do, you have a chance of winning,” manager Dale Sveum told reporters.
Notice the first pitcher he mentioned, unprompted.
It’s possible that this latest campaign is simple salesmanship. Tell the world how valuable Carlos Zambrano is to the Cubs, just to keep some other team interested enough in acquiring him, even if you have to pay the freight to make him go away. If you can get him to waive his full no-trade rights, that is.
But there are other plausible, reasonable scenarios, especially when considering what’s at stake – or not — in the near-term.
Best case: he snaps back to form, stays in shape, keeps his cool, pitches 200 innings and helps a team in transition stay competitive and relevant in a weak division. The only downside to his success could be the fine print in his deal vesting him for 2013 at $19.25 million if he’s in the top four in Cy Young voting and healthy at season’s end.
Worst case: he’s the same fat, selfish boor as always. His stuff continues to decline, and his behavior undermines the authority of the new manager and pitching coach from the outset. He’s untradeable, and again suspended/disqualified/exiled/deported/imprisoned/sent to sea on a barge/launched into space.
Other case: he’s just stable and successful enough to increase his value at or before the trading deadline. He eats as many innings as he does cheeseburgers, remains healthy, and eventually agrees to join a contender mid-season.
Regardless, Zambrano will not be a part of a Cubs team with real expectations, so there’s no measurable negative risk, other than distractions and bad press. It’s not like he’d be derailing a surefire contender.
The only player in the clubhouse who will be part of the World Series winner is Starlin Castro. So if you think Zambrano’s bad examples in any way complicate Castro’s development, or negatively affect his relationship with Sveum and the coaching staff, that’s a consideration.
Already, even, what’s coming from Zambrano is troubling. This from the Trib: “’All the things he wanted to see gone are now gone,’ said one friend, referring to former general manager Jim Hendry and pitching coach Mark Riggins. ‘He likes Theo and is looking forward to proving himself next year.’”
So in Zambrano’s mind, his return is his decision? Conditions have to be right for him to grace the Cubs with his presence? Seriously? And one of the deal-breakers was the presence of Hendry, the man who handpicked this kid, doted over his development, awarded him the wealth of a small nation, and treated him like a son?
No-trade clauses are powerful things. Zambrano knows what he controls, and how much money he has.
It’s easy to paint the Cubs’ decision as some kind of wild-west showdown between Zambrano and Epstein — the past versus future, player against management, emotional machismo versus intellectual calculation.
But it’s really not. It’s symbolic, more than anything else, and that’s what’s so stunning about such an expensive pitcher who once had so much ability and promise.
For all his noise and bluster, on-field antics and polarizing presence, he’s just not very important.
Dan Bernstein has been the co-host of “Boers and Bernstein” since 1999. He joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995. The Boers and Bernstein Show airs every weekday from 1PM to 6PM on The Score, 670AM. Read more of Bernstein’s columns here. Follow him on Twitter @dan_bernstein.
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