Clock's Ticking

Since 1993, when Mark Grace lost in an arbitration hearing, the Cubs have always settled up with arbitration-eligible players before the process went before an independent arbiter.

The Cubs' thinking is that it's an ugly process that usually causes hard feelings between the player and the team.

Star pitcher Carlos Zambrano and the Cubs are still far apart in their negotiations but have plenty of time to iron things out. Zambrano's hearing date is Feb. 20 in Phoenix.

They may need all the time they can get.

Zambrano is looking for $15.5 million, and the Cubs countered with $11 million -- the largest arbitration offer made in the majors this offseason.

But that might not be enough to satisfy the 25-year-old right-hander. Zambrano, who won 16 games in 2006, will be a free agent after this season.

At the Cubs Convention in January, he talked about wanting to get Barry Zito-like money in the neighborhood of $18 million per year, and if the Cubs wanted to lock him into a multiyear deal, he said he wanted to get it done before the start of the 2007 season.

"We talked to the general manager (Jim Hendry), and I don't want to talk about the contract when the season starts," Zambrano said. "It has to be done before the season starts or in spring training."

First things first -- the two sides have to figure out what Zambrano will make in 2007 before looking too far ahead.

And that process might not be easy.

NOTES, QUOTES

  • RHP Mark Prior avoided arbitration by signing a one-year deal worth $3,575,000, which is a pay cut from 2006, when he made $3.65 during an injury-filled season. Prior has two incentives clauses based on number of starts that could pay out an additional $300,000.

    "I haven't pitched much in spring training (in the past three seasons), so I want to go and actually enjoy spring training this year," Prior said. "I want to have fun and relax. I'm going in trying to get my work in and to get into shape. I want to play. It's not a lot of fun not playing.

    "It's been a rough couple of years, but I'm looking forward to this year. You can't change the reality of what happened the last three years. I'm not making excuses, but I'm working for '07."

  • LHP Scott Eyre, concerned that excess weight may have led to a leg injury last year, said he lost 15 pounds during the offseason. Eyre figures to be the top left-handed setup man in a bullpen that could feature three southpaws (including Will Ohman and Neal Cotts).

  • LHP Neal Cotts will open spring training working with the starting pitchers and building up innings. Since there is just one slot open in the rotation and several pitchers including RHP Mark Prior, RHP Wade Miller and LHP Sean Marshall are fighting for it. Cotts can reduce his workload toward the middle and end of camp if he does not get the job and will return to the bullpen.

  • RHP Jeff Samardzija, who recently gave up football and signed a five-year, $10 million contract with the Cubs, will be invited to big-league camp but likely will open the season with Class A Daytona.

    BY THE NUMBERS: 14 -- Spring training games that will be televised in Chicago, a franchise record.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I told him we'll go to Taco Bell." -- LHP Scott Eyre on losing 15 pounds over the winter and where he will collect his lunch after winning a bet with trainer Tim Buss.


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