The deal is the largest single-season award ever given to a Cubs pitcher, topping Kerry Wood's 2006 salary of $12 million, and continues the team's large offseason spending spree.
Cubs general manager Jim Hendry and Zambrano's agent, Barry Praver, were walking toward the hearing room in the Phoenix Hyatt, and decided they were close enough to skip the session, which was scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. MST.
"We hadn't walked actually in [the room] yet, but we were getting close to it," Praver said.
"Barry and I agreed, they couldn't start without us," Hendry said.
The final numbers were worked out at the last minute -- and without having to face off in a hearing.
"At the end of the day, we both decided we were both better served to try to get something done at the 11th hour," Hendry said. "Our goals are exactly the same in how we feel about where the ballclub is going. We know we're a better ballclub with Carlos pitching on it, and we certainly hope that's the case for a long time coming. We certainly have a better chance with him than without him.
"We got to the point today where it was getting close," Hendry said. "There wasn't any intentional bluffing by anybody. I don't think there was a gap like that in the history of arbitration that I know of. It was one of those where it took awhile to get to the right level where everybody was comfortable."
On Feb. 15, the Minnesota Twins and Michael Cuddyer settled on a one-year deal minutes before his arbitration hearing began.
Zambrano, 25, made $6.5 million last year, and had asked for $15.5 million. The Cubs countered with an offer of $11.025 million.
The new deal includes an awards package that offers bonuses if Zambrano finishes in the top five in Cy Young voting, or wins the Most Valuable Player Award in the World Series or League Championship Series, or is named to the All-Star team. He also receives bonuses if he wins a Silver Slugger or Gold Glove award.
The next step will be to settle on a long-term deal by Opening Day. Zambrano will be a free agent after the 2007 season.
"Yes, because I don't want to have a distraction during the season," he said. "Something can happen after the season -- why not? I want to stay with the Cubs, and I want to be part of the Cubs when they win the championship. I want to be here, that's the bottom line."
The right-hander, whom Cubs manager Lou Piniella has named as his Opening Day starter, posted a 16-7 record and 3.41 ERA in 33 starts last season, matching his career high in wins. Hendry has known the pitcher since he was 16 years old.
"I've know him since he was a kid, and he's grown into a heck of a man," Hendry said.
Hendry did talk to Zambrano on the Fitch Park field shortly after the workout began and before he left for the hearing in downtown Phoenix.
"At that point, I thought something was going to happen," Zambrano said. "I didn't know what he was thinking. Like he said, this is a good relationship, Jim Hendry and me, and thank God that everything was like this, and I think everybody is happy as well."
Piniella hoped the two sides would settle. Piniella went to arbitration in 1988 with third baseman Mike Pagliarulo, and didn't enjoy the process. Pagliarulo requested a $175,000 raise to $625,000, and the Yankees had countered with an offer of $500,000. The Yankees won.
"I felt a little uncomfortable in there, to be honest," Piniella said. "It got a little combative, too."
Hendry told the people handling the Cubs' side of the argument not to make it personal.
"Not one part of our case was ever going to be to say anything disparaging about Carlos," Hendry said. "Our case was solely going to be built on comparables to people in history with his service time or to try to negate some of the free agent signing -- he's a five-plus guy [in service time], not a free agent.
"There wasn't going to be any tearing down of Carlos Zambrano," Hendry said. "First of all, he's our best pitcher. I have nothing bad to say about him. All I wanted to do was have him win more games than he won last year."
Zambrano said he hasn't lost any sleep over the negotiations.
"One time I told my agent, two years ago, 'I do my job and you do your job,'" Zambrano said. "It's in my agent's hands and Jim Hendry's hands."
Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who also benefitted from the team's offseason spending with a new five-year, $75 million deal, had no advice for his teammate.
"He's a great pitcher, he's one of the best pitchers in the National League," Ramirez said. "I don't know what his situation is -- I just got here. Whatever money he gets, he deserves. He's pitching for you every five days. He doesn't miss a start, and he can hit also."
The Cubs have not gone to arbitration since 1993. The team has a 3-2 record in such cases. In 1980, Bruce Sutter sought $700,000 and the Cubs offered $350,000. Sutter won that case. In 1985, Leon Durham asked for $1.1 million and the Cubs offered $800,000. The Cubs won.
In 1988, Andre Dawson asked for $2 million and the Cubs offered $1.85 million. The arbitrator ruled in favor of the Cubs. In 1990, Shawon Dunston asked for $1.25 million and the team countered at $925,000. Dunston won. The Cubs won in 1993 when Mark Grace filed for $4.1 million and the Cubs offered $3.1 million.
"Our track record is intact," Hendry said. "We did our best in the end to come to a good settlement for both. It was never a case of animosity or bickering. It was just a really tough, tough case to get a handle on."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.