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Cubs settle with ace

Carlos Zambrano and the Chicago Cubs agreed to a $12.4 million, one-year contract yesterday, avoiding salary arbitration by striking the deal just before their scheduled hearing.

Zambrano earned $6.5 million last season while going 16-7 with a 3.41 ERA and 210 strikeouts. He asked for $15.5 million in arbitration, while the Cubs countered at $11,025,000 -- more than any player had been awarded.

Now, the sides can focus on trying to work out a multiyear contract, which would likely be in the five-year range.

Zambrano has said he won't negotiate during the season and wants to be paid on the level of fellow pitcher Barry Zito, who got a $126 million, seven-year contract with San Francisco.

Williams says no
In case there was any lingering doubt, Bernie Williams's agent made it clear the outfielder will not report to Yankees camp unless he is guaranteed a spot on the team. The Yankees have offered only a minor league contract. "He's continuing to work out and will wait to see if their position changes," said agent Scott Boras. "He certainly feels he can be a helpful contributor in '07. He wants to remain loyal to the Yankees and doesn't feel it's appropriate for him to play for another club." . . . Derek Jeter didn't want to discuss his off-field relationship with Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod, however, felt relieved to speak his mind. "I don't have a rift with Alex," Jeter said yesterday, a day after Rodriguez finally acknowledged they no longer are the best of friends. "We go out there. We work together. This is our fourth year to be playing together. It's annoying to hear about it all the time. I don't see the relevance of it. It has no bearing on us playing baseball." Shortly after arriving at camp Monday, Rodriguez said it was time for him to stop pretending that his relationship with Jeter was as close as it was in the 1990s. "That's as honest as I've been here since I've been here, the four years, and that part of it felt good," Rodriguez said yesterday.

Return of Guapo
"El Guapo" is returning north of the border. Former Red Sox reliever Rich Garces, 35, who last pitched in the majors in 2002, signed with the Nashua Pride. "Signing Rich to pitch this season is really fun for the fans in Nashua," said Nashua manager Butch Hobson. "He has pitched great in Venezuela this winter and we will look for him to be a leader both in the bullpen and in the community." . . . Derek Lowe will be the Dodgers' Opening Day starter for the third straight year, manager Grady Little said. Lowe said he is eager to redeem himself after allowing seven earned runs in last year's 11-10 loss to Atlanta. "The way I pitched last year was disappointing so I get another opportunity," he said.