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Epstein: Zambrano can earn his way back

Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Carlos Zambrano (38) throws a close inside pitch to Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones (10) in the fifth inning of the Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs baseball game, Friday, Aug. 12, 2011, at Turner Field in Atlanta. Zambrano allowed a career-worst five homers, and manager Mike Quade said he then left the team. Quade said, "His locker is empty. He walked out on 24 guys ... I don't know where he's gone or what he's doing." (AP Photo/Dave Tulis)

MILWAUKEE – New Cubs president Theo Epstein isn’t buying it any more than previous Cubs officials. Carlos Zambrano has vowed to reform before.

But in a surprise concession by an organization that had seemed to wash its hands of its mercurial former ace, Epstein said Monday night that Zambrano has been given one last chance.

‘‘I told him we would give him the right to earn his way back to being a Cub,” said Epstein, who joined other team officials at a lunch with Zambrano and his agent, Barry Praver, in Chicago.

Despite the team’s desperate need for starting pitching, it still appears a long shot that Zambrano will make it to spring training, much less Opening Day, as a Cub.

The mere appearance of reconciliation also suggests value for a possible trade.

Not even Praver was willing to express optimism about Zambrano pitching for the Cubs in 2012.

‘‘I’d rather not get into details of my personal feelings about it,” Praver said.

The meeting was requested by Zambrano, who traveled from Venezuela between winter-league starts. Zambrano hasn’t pitched for the Cubs since Aug. 12, when he packed his locker and left during a game after being ejected for throwing at the Atlanta Braves’ Chipper Jones, telling team officials he was ‘‘retiring.” He was suspended and placed on the disqualified list.

‘‘He expressed a strong desire to be a Cub and an even stronger desire to have a real good 2012 season,” Epstein said. ‘‘He’s in great shape, working real hard.”

Epstein said he was aware of Zambrano’s history of ‘‘contrite” appeals and remorse after me-first behavior, a pattern that escalated after he signed a five-year, $91.5 million extension in the summer of 2007.

That’s why, he said, this is a ‘‘trust but verify situation” as Zambrano enters the final year of the contract.

‘‘Nothing was given to him, but [he was told only] that he could earn his way back through very hard work this winter, through rebuilding relationships, man-to-man, with all of his teammates and through some other steps that we discussed,” Epstein said. ‘‘So we’re not welcoming him back unconditionally at all. But we’re going to give him the right to earn his way back.”

Neither Epstein nor Praver would detail the conditions. Asked specifically if they involved professional help, such as the anger-management therapy Zambrano underwent in 2010, Epstein declined comment.

NOTE: General manager Jed Hoyer interviewed a fifth managerial candidate – Boston Red Sox bench coach DeMarlo Hale – by phone last week, and Epstein said it’s ‘‘very unlikely” the list will grow to a sixth candidate.

Epstein said that the process has reached the ‘‘evaluation and decision phase” and that no second interviews would be needed.

Texas Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux is considered the front-runner, though Cubs officials deny a favorite.