All smiles, Zambrano says he's 'cured'

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All smiles, Zambrano says he's 'cured'

Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011
4:53 p.m.

By Patrick Mooney
CSNChicago.com

MESA, Ariz. Carlos Zambrano stopped attending anger-management counseling last October. He says he learned something from the experience.

Im cured, Zambrano said Tuesday. I got approval from the psychologist that I can be by myself.

Zambrano could barely get the line out before bursting into laughter along with the group of reporters surrounding his locker at Fitch Park.

They didnt get an explosive reaction the day after Cubs manager Mike Quade called Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza into his office to inform them that Dempster would start Opening Day.

Instead, Zambrano cracked jokes with the media and let them know that Quade handled it professionally. Zambrano loved the symbolism of being the ace, the starter on Opening Day when everyones watching. After getting the assignment for a franchise-record six straight seasons, he says he accepts the new order.

Nothing lasts forever, Zambrano said. (Dempsters) been pitching good much better than I did the last two years and he deserves it. (I) understand that. Theres nothing I can do about it (except) just keep working hard.

Zambrano will turn 30 in June and has two more years guaranteed on his 91.5 million contract. He admitted that he probably wouldnt have handled the news as well a few years ago.

The Cubs are hoping that Zambrano hit bottom last June, when a dugout dispute at U.S. Cellular Field with Derrek Lee led to his suspension and treatment for his anger issues. A player known for attacking Gatorade coolers went after hitters and ended the season by going 8-0 with a 1.41 ERA in his final 11 starts.

What makes Zambrano so interesting is that you dont know what hes going to say or do next.

Zambranos not overly concerned with his image. Clearly, he has a good sense of humor. Hes also a family man dedicated to his charities. He believes he doesnt have to change his entire personality. Its just a matter of isolating the issue.

The problem that I have to solve is when I get upset on the field, Zambrano said. My problem is after I cross those two lines. And whether somebody makes an error or whether I make an error, thats my problem. I have to focus on that this year.

But off the field I think I consider myself a nice guy. People can talk about that. I dont like to talk about myself.

Maybe Zambrano is saying all the right things and telling Cubs fans what they hope to hear. Check back April 2 to see what type of pitcher shows up at Wrigley Field. He thinks the counseling sessions had an impact.

Yes, it did work, Zambrano said. Believe me that was an experience I can talk (about) through the years. Maybe in the future I can be a pitching coach or whatever 20 years from now. I can speak to the young kids about what I went through or what happened in my career.

The follow-up question drew more laughter: Do you really see yourself coaching in the future?

I dont know, Zambrano answered with a smile. I just said that.

PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Patrick Mooney goes one-on-one with Jed Hoyer

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Patrick Mooney goes one-on-one with Jed Hoyer

On the latest edition of the Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull and Luke Stuckmeyer talk about the first week of spring training. 

The two discuss ace contracts, leadoff intimidation and give their thoughts on the Sammy Sosa saga. 

Plus CSNChicago.com Cubs Insider Patrick Mooney goes one-on-one with general manager Jed Hoyer. 

Listen to the Cubs Talk Podcast below. 

Cubs eager to see the Jason Heyward relaunch in Cactus League

Cubs eager to see the Jason Heyward relaunch in Cactus League

MESA, Ariz. — Cactus League stats are supposed to be irrelevant, especially for the guy with the biggest contract in franchise history. Jason Heyward already built up a reservoir of goodwill as a former All Star, three-time Gold Glove defender and World Series champion. The intangibles got Heyward $184 million guaranteed, and the Cubs are hoping a new comfort level will lead to a Jon Lester effect in Year 2 of that megadeal.

But Heyward will still be one of the most scrutinized players in Mesa after an offseason overhaul that tried to recapture the rhythm and timing he felt with the 2012 Braves (27 homers) and break some of the bad habits that had slowly crept into his high-maintenance left-handed swing.

"If there's ever any doubt," Heyward said, "then you probably shouldn't be here."

Heyward will be batting leadoff and starting in right field on Saturday afternoon when the Cubs open their exhibition schedule with a split-squad game against the A's at Sloan Park. If Heyward has anything to prove this spring, it's "probably to himself, not to us," general manager Jed Hoyer said, backing a player who does the little things so well and commands respect throughout the clubhouse.

"There's going to be growing pains with making adjustments," Hoyer said. "He'll probably have some good days and some bad days. But I think the most important thing is that he feels comfortable and uses these five weeks to lock in and get ready for the Cardinals."

The Cubs are betting on Heyward's age (27), track record (three seasons where he showed up in the National League MVP voting), understanding of the strike zone (.346 career on-base percentage) and willingness to break down his swing this winter at the team's Arizona complex.

At the same time, Heyward realizes "it's just the offseason" and "a never-ending process in baseball." There are no sweeping conclusions to be made when the opposing starting pitcher showers, talks to the media and leaves the stadium before the game ends.

"I'm not sitting here telling you: 'Oh, I know for sure what's going to happen,'" Heyward said. "I don't know how it's going to go. But I know I did a damn good job of preparing for it."

[MORE CUBS: No hard feelings: Cubs and Pedro Strop look to future with contract extension]

Manager Joe Maddon — who gave Heyward nearly 600 plate appearances to figure it out during the regular season (.631 OPS) before turning him into a part-time outfielder in the playoffs (5-for-48) — usually thinks batting practice is overrated or a waste of time. But at 6-foot-5 — and with so much riding on an offensive resurgence — Heyward is hard to miss.

"I can see it's a lot freer and the ball's coming off hotter," Maddon said. "But it's all about game. I'm really eager for him, because everybody just talks about all the work he's done all winter.

"Conversationally with him, I sense or feel like he feels good about it and that he's kind of at a nice peaceful moment with himself. So it will be really fun to watch."

A 103-win season, an American League-style lineup that scored 808 runs, a new appreciation for defensive metrics and a professional attitude helped provide cover for Heyward, who largely escaped the wrath of Cubs fans with little patience for big-ticket free agents.

"Baseball is a game that's going to humble you every day," Heyward said. "You're going to fail more times than you succeed, so it's all about how you handle it, as an individual and as a group. We handled it the best out of anyone last year as a team. And that's why we were able to win the World Series.

"There's always things you feel like you need to work on. You can ask guys who had the best years — there's always something they're trying to improve on and something they don't feel great about at a certain point in time during the year.

"I just happened to have a little bit more breaking down to do. A lot of things allowed me to just kind of pause (and) look forward and not really think about trying to compete and win a game. Let's just get some work done."