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02/14/08 5:00 PM ET

Zambrano will open season for Cubs

Leaner, trimmer Big Z to take renewed focus into Opening Day

MESA, Ariz. -- Carlos Zambrano was just kidding about not starting on Opening Day. He wants the assignment, and Cubs manager Lou Piniella said Thursday the right-hander will get the start.

"He looks wonderful," Piniella said of Zambrano. "I commended him on his shape coming into camp. He's ready to go."

Zambrano is 0-1 in three Opening Day starts, losing last year to Cincinnati. At the Cubs' winter fan fest in January, he said Ted Lilly could start the season opener March 31 against Milwaukee.

"What I said at the convention, I was just playing," Zambrano said Thursday. "I'm going to be out there the first day and try to win the first game. The one who invented the light tried 2,000 something times, and finally he did it. We have light. I don't want to spend 2,000 times to win the first game on Opening Day, but I think I will do it this year and go from there."

This year is different because Zambrano isn't worried about his contract status. Last spring, he was steps away from an arbitration hearing. He eventually settled with the Cubs, who then reworked his contract and gave him a five-year, $91.5 million deal in August. It's part of the reason Zambrano is driving a sleek, black Lamborghini this spring.

"If you take it to Venezuela, you can go all speeds," he said, "but not here."

At the time he signed, Zambrano had the highest average salary awarded to a pitcher in a multi-year contract in Major League history. Countryman Johan Santana passed that with his $137.5 million deal.

"Good for Santana," Zambrano said of the Venezuelan, who switched leagues and is now with the New York Mets. "I'm happy for him. This is not time to talk about my contract. I'm happy with my contract. Let's just talk about baseball, let's just talk about this season. If anybody wants to talk about my contract, wait five years."

Santana's shift to the National League will make it even tougher for Zambrano to win a Cy Young Award. The Cubs right-hander sees it as motivation.

"I know he's one of the best pitchers in the big leagues," Zambrano said of the new Mets ace. "Believe me, when I saw that he signed in the National League with the Mets, I said that I have to work hard if I want to win the Cy Young. I have to work harder and do extra work. That's what it will take to win. If you are lazy, you won't go anywhere or win anything. If you want to go hard, you'll have a good season."

There is no rivalry between Santana and Zambrano, although there were reports of such during the World Baseball Classic when the pitchers were together on the Venezuelan team.

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"I know Johan, and he's a good friend of mine," Zambrano said. "Any time I'm on any team with Johan, I will let him start the first game. When you have somebody like him, somebody like Greg Maddux or Roger Clemens, and you know he's the horse, just let him go and have respect. That's what I call it -- respect. I have respect for Santana. He has proved a lot, and he has done a lot of things more than I have."

Zambrano is coming off an 18-13 season, which was a career high in wins. He also set personal bests in starts (34). But a sluggish April, in which he was 2-2 with a 5.77 ERA in six starts, plus a winless August (0-4, 7.06 ERA) prevented him from having an even better season.

"Last year, I won 18 games, and my first month wasn't that good," Zambrano said. "I will try to have a good start, a fresh start, and go from there game by game. I will focus on pitch by pitch, and more concentration on the game. At the end of the season, I should have good results.

"I know I had a good season last year, but I want to be better," he said. "Every year I want to be better. It's not about if you are comfortable, or you did a good job last year. It's, 'Be better every year, be consistent every year, be durable.' I want to stay healthy this year. That's the key. Every year, you come to Spring Training with goals and be better than what you did last year."

Zambrano showed up seven pounds lighter, but looking even trimmer than that. He concentrated on strengthening his core and legs, and kept busy playing first base.

"I don't want to take [Derrek Lee's] job, but I did that this offseason because I want to get my legs ready," Zambrano said. "I think that helped with my conditioning. When you take ground balls, that gives you the ability to have stronger legs."

There will be no bold predictions from Zambrano this spring. Last year, he vowed to win the Cy Young and World Series. Teammate Ryan Dempster took care of the boasting on Wednesday, saying he thinks the Cubs can win it all.

"Good for him," Zambrano said of Dempster.

There will be no distractions, Big Z said.

"The main focus this year is help this team," he said. "The main thing last year was to help this team, but [his contract] was a distraction, the thing about the contract, the things I went through. This year is different. This year, I come to Spring Training more relaxed and focused on one thing, and that's help this team and do my job."

How good can Zambrano be?

"He can be really good," Piniella said. "You can see last year after the first four, five weeks of the season how he turned it around and finished nice and strong. We need that the entire year from him. He's way ahead of the game because he's in much better shape this year than he was last year when he reported.

"He's got the contract out of the way, he's got an 18-game season under his belt. He's ready -- he's ready to take this thing to the next step, which is 20-plus wins."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.