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Zambrano to Yanks? Cubs can hope

Enigmatic Carlos Zambrano has had communicate with only one pitching coach during his major-league career — Larry Rothschild. Now thRothschild

Enigmatic Carlos Zambrano has had to communicate with only one pitching coach during his major-league career — Larry Rothschild. Now that Rothschild is with the Yankees, will they be reunited in the Bronx? | Nam Y. Huh~AP

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Updated: April 19, 2011 5:10AM

The New York Yankees’ swing and whiff at Cliff Lee could be one of the best developments of the winter for the Cubs if it means the Yankees make an aggressive push for Carlos Zambrano.

That’s assuming Zambrano can be persuaded to waive his full no-trade rights to reunite with Larry Rothschild, the only big-league pitching coach he has had.

A lot of dominoes must fall in line for anything to happen. A source said the Yankees, for instance, didn’t discuss Zambrano during their organizational meetings this offseason, unlike last year when they looked at him as a possible buy-low, high-ceiling, change-of-scenery proposition.

But with Lee, the top free-agent pitcher on the market, taking his talents back to Philly, the Yankees have more than $20 million a year in the coffers they had set aside for Lee, and speculation in the New York media is centering on Zambrano.

The Cubs have said publicly — and privately — since late in the season that their plans for 2011 include Zambrano. And trading him would leave a tough hole to fill in a rotation that already has highly questionable depth.

But if the Yankees were willing to take all or at least the vast majority of the $36 million guaranteed to Zambrano over the next two years, a potential deal could quickly become a no-brainer for the Cubs.

For one thing, not even Zambrano’s strongest supporters in the Cubs’ organization are completely sold that the change-of-attitude, 8-0 finish to his season after that anger-management exile will be sustained over an entire season — not with his lengthy track record of new-man declarations followed by eventual meltdowns. And especially with another variable — the departure of one of his trusted mentors in Rothschild — thrown into the equation.

And whether the Cubs’ brass wants to admit it, Zambrano’s me-first antics over the years have left more than a sour taste and impression.

But just as big as any doubts about the two-year return on the rest of his contract is the fact the Cubs are in full-blown cost-containment mode as they try to cobble together a respectable season in 2011 with an eye toward prospects and financial strength that could bear significant results in 2012 and beyond.

Even their big $10 million signing at the winter meetings last week of first baseman Carlos Pena (including $5 million backloaded to 13 months from now) showed their longer-term vision.

Pena’s contract won’t restrict flexibility, while $40 million more comes off the books in just three players (Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Silva and Kosuke Fukudome). If the Cubs can get Zambrano’s contract off the books, too, they’ll be in financial position to add almost anything they want to fill out a contending roster for 2012, with the added advantage of another year to evaluate which young players they consider the core of that potential renaissance.

(Can you say Albert Pujols?)

But whether the Cubs are willing, Zambrano’s willingness remains in serious doubt. He said repeatedly down the stretch last season that he had no intention of waiving his no-trade rights (although, he also said once or twice, he’d do it if the Cubs asked because that would mean he’s not wanted).

Meanwhile, his agent repeated last month that Big Z doesn’t want to leave and the Cubs haven’t asked him to waive the no-trade.

And then there’s the Yankees, who inquired about Zambrano a year ago when they felt the Cubs might be willing to pay a significant portion of their ace’s remaining salary in a trade. Are they willing to buy high now? Even with the Lee money burning a hole in their pocket? Especially if Zambrano requires a renegotiated deal or his 2013 option picked up to waive the no-trade?

And, sure, Rothschild has a long-standing relationship with Zambrano, and he was the pitching coach who, as the New York Daily News points out, helped coax that 8-0 finish out of Zambrano. But that long-standing relationship cuts both ways. Rothschild was also Z’s pitching coach for every meltdown, every tantrum and every pitching slump caused by willful disregard of instruction or between-starts preparation. Rothschild is as familiar with every wart as he is with the exceptional abilities.

‘‘I don’t even think I can comment on that because he is property of the Cubs, and that’s out of my domain now,’’ Rothschild said after signing with the Yankees last month — nonetheless praising Zambrano’s ability late last season to adjust to pitching without the velocity he has had in the past. ‘‘He has a chance to be a very good pitcher [having made that adjustment].’’

A chance to be that very good pitcher for the Yankees? Cubs fans can hope.

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