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Zambrano Backs Off Threat To Leave Cubs

Carlos Zambrano backed off recent comments that he would leave the Chicago Cubs as a free agent after this season if he doesn't get a multiyear contract during spring training.

Although he would rather get a new deal done by opening day, the pitcher said Thursday he would be willing to negotiate next fall. He won't discuss a contract during the season, though.

"They have the first look," Zambrano said after the club's initial workout for pitchers and catchers. "I didn't say that if they don't sign me before the end of spring training I will not sign with the Cubs. I didn't say that. I just said they have till the beginning of the season; if not, I don't want to talk about (a) contract during the season."

But in an interview with WGN-TV this week, the Cubs' ace was adamant that he would leave as a free agent if he didn't have a multiyear contract by the opener.

"I want to sign with the Cubs before the season starts," he told the TV station. "If they don't sign me, sorry, but I must go. That's what Carlos Zambrano thinks."

Zambrano, who has an arbitration hearing scheduled for Tuesday, is seeking a deal similar to the seven-year, $126 million contract Barry Zito signed with San Francisco this offseason. But the Cubs are more inclined to sign him for five years.

Whether he signs a long-term contract this spring or not, Zambrano will get a big pay raise.

He earned $6.5 million last season while going 16-7 with a 3.41 ERA and 210 strikeouts, then asked for $15.5 million in arbitration. The team countered at $11,025,000, which is more than any player has been awarded.

"I want to stay here," Zambrano said. "I want to sign with the Cubs. I just don't want to talk about a contract during the season."

The 25-year-old Zambrano watched as the Cubs went on a major spending spree during the offseason, committing about $296 million to acquire and retain free agents. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez re-signed for five years and $75 million _ a club record until Alfonso Soriano signed an eight-year, $136 million deal.

Born in Venezuela, Zambrano signed with the Cubs in July 1997 and made his major league debut in 2001. He is 46-21 the past three seasons.

"As a manager, obviously I want the best talent," skipper Lou Piniella said. "Carlos is part of that equation, no question. A big part of it. Let's hope that they can work something out."