Money man

Jeff Passan
Manager/Ballpark: Lou Piniella brings his base-chucking tantrums and bulldog demeanor to the North Side. An aggressive manager on the basepaths in his previous stint in Tampa, the D-Rays consistently finished in the top five in the Majors in stolen bases. On the mound, Piniella is no stranger to high pitch counts and impatience in the bullpen. Expect closer Ryan Dempster to be on a very short leash.

Mother Nature's unpredictability has labeled Wrigley Field friend and foe for pitchers. The basket-shallow power alleys have made the friendly confines the third most prolific home run park since 2004.

Fantasy MVP: Although Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee and Carlos Zambrano will be early round choices, Alfonso Soriano is the most vicious fantasy force. Last season with Washington, Soriano became only the fourth 40-40 club member in baseball history. Despite losing eligibility at second base, he is easily a top-five fantasy selection capable of fantastic production across four categories (R, HR, RBI, SB).

Bust: Totaling a paltry 35 walks in '06, OF Jacque Jones defied logic by matching his career high in homers (27), while hitting a respectable .285. With a career .328 on-base percentage, he will be hard-pressed to repeat serviceable fantasy outfielder totals. The presence of Cliff Floyd and potential super prospect Felix Pie will also make Jones the subject of various trade rumors throughout the year.

Sleeper: Rich Hill is a top-flight sleeper target. His 2.93 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, .205 BAA and 79:24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 12 '06 second half starts arrows to a strong breakout season. A total of 200-plus strikeouts and an ERA under 3.50 are certainly attainable for this rising star.

On the Farm: Arguably the best five-tooled outfield prospect in the NL, Felix Pie needs to be remembered in the final rounds of deep drafts. The 22-year-old lefty has the arsenal to be a perennial 30-20 player. After posting a troubled 126:46 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 559 Triple-A at-bats last season, Pie will need to exude patience in spring training if he wants to earn a roster spot.

MESA, Ariz. – Somewhere in Carlos Zambrano's new contract, if the Chicago Cubs ever get around to offering him one, they ought to include an incentive clause that rewards him for silence.

This could be groundbreaking. For every complaint he swallows, he gets $10,000. For steering questions away from something that might incite his emotions – which come with a FLAMMABLE warning – it's $15,000. And keeping a secret – the silence clause's equivalent of an MVP bonus – would be $25,000.

It could be lucrative, too, because Zambrano this week alone would have made $50,000.

Big Z was at it again Thursday as the new-and-improved Cubs opened camp at Fitch Park. Amid the same-old, same-old – Kerry Wood on the sideline after injuring himself falling out of a hot tub – Zambrano wanted to clear up the mess that came from a TV interview during which, in between third-person references, he asked for a big-year, bigger-money extension before opening day and said if the Cubs weren't willing to proffer such, "I must go."

On the mound, Zambrano is a quite the showman, nuclear in the energy he gives off and his propensity for meltdowns. Better yet, he's got a mouth to match.

In Clintonian fashion, Zambrano tried to contort the definition of a simple two-letter word. The president wondered "what the meaning of the word 'is' is." Big Z explained that by "go," he meant go to free agency. Not go away from a team that hasn't won a World Series in 99 years.


So anyway, with that taken care of, the questions kept coming about how Zambrano feels. With an arbitration hearing on the docket. With a free-agent market that so values starting pitching purring at his right arm. With the Cubs.

"Things are looking better," he answered, and then he said the Cubs had made him an initial offer earlier this week, which he didn't want to talk about.

And then he said he'd eventually like Barry Zito money, $18 million per season, though not for the seven-year term of Zito's deal. Zambrano, though a veteran of five seasons, doesn't turn 26 until June, and if his violent motion doesn't rip his rotator cuff, he's got at least one more huge contract in him following this one.

And that's why Zambrano wants a five-year deal. Yeah, he came out and said that. He said the Cubs were amenable to five years, too, and that was rather shocking, because Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, who spent $300 million on free agents this offseason, later said that no deal has been offered. He and Zambrano's agent, Barry Praver, have talked parameters, and five years seems the meeting point, but right now Hendry would rather reach a deal before the arbitration hearing.

In that room, egos bruise and relations sour. Zambrano wants a salary of $15.5 million. The Cubs countered with an offer of $11.025 million. Both sides argue their case, the player trying to leverage his numbers, the club able to counter with plenty more.

Can't imagine Zambrano will enjoy hearing some facsimile of this: "Does someone who injured himself looking at the Internet deserve $15, let alone $15 million?"

True story. Chatted with his brother back in Venezuela for hours at a time. Or something like that.

Hey, Zambrano goes about his business in a unique way. He's always teetering on the edge of overweight, and a back problem that flared last season could be the sign that it's roosting. He approaches his at-bats with the intensity of a desert sun and takes as much pride in his home runs as he does in his pitching prowess.

Which, frankly, is the reason this is such a big deal. Carlos Zambrano is one of the best pitchers in baseball. He is remarkably durable, exceeding 200 innings four consecutive years. His pitches move like Wiffle Balls. He wins games. His career ERA of 3.29 is eighth among active players, behind Pedro Martinez, Roy Oswalt, Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Johan Santana, Randy Johnson and John Smoltz.

"As a manager, obviously I want the best talent," said the Cubs' new skipper, Lou Piniella. "And Carlos is a part of that equation, no question. A big part of it."

Big enough to deserve $90 million over five years? Let's put it this way: One agent, when asked what Zambrano could fetch on the open market, guessed seven years at $150 million. Told Zambrano wanted a five-year deal, he figured the number would be closer to $100 million, and with the New York Yankees, New York Mets and Boston Red Sox all almost certain to bid on a pitcher so young and accomplished, the number could spike even higher.

The talk didn't reach that far into the future Thursday. Zambrano said he wants to get a deal done with the Cubs before his end-of-spring training deadline.

"You have any other questions besides contract?" he asked. "I feel good. My wife is good. My daughters are good. They're going to school."

As cute as Carlis, Catherine and Carla, his three kids, surely are, they don't generate quite the interest of their daddy, not when words are spitting from his mouth like a geyser. There were other questions, sure, but what was the use? Zambrano was on a roll, and, thankfully, the silence clause doesn't exist.