The meeting, which took place in Chicago and featured Epstein, Zambrano, agent Barry Praver and vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita, was the first between Epstein and the volatile pitcher since Epstein was hired on Oct. 21.
"We met today at his request," Epstein said. "It went well. He expressed a strong desire to be a Cub (again) and an even stronger desire to have a strong 2012 season. He's in great shape. He's working out twice a day, pitching down in Venezuela. I told him that we'd let him earn his right back to being a Cub.
"We said he'd have to work hard and that we aren't welcoming him back unconditionally. We said he'd have to earn his way back."
Zambrano was placed on the disqualified list by the Cubs on Aug. 12 after he was ejected from a game against Atlanta for throwing at Braves third baseman Chipper Jones twice in the same at-bat. Zambrano gave up a Cub record five home runs in that game. After being ejected, Zambrano cleaned out his locker, told team personnel he was quitting the team and then left the ballpark.
Zambrano did try to come back to the team that night, sending a friend of his to the clubhouse to place his belongings in his locker. He also tried to return to the team the next day in Atlanta but was told by manager Mike Quade that he couldn't stay.
Former Cubs general manager Jim Hendry then put Zambrano on the disqualified list for 30 days. Zambrano's agent and the MLB Players Association filed a grievance on the disqualification which is still pending between MLB and the MLBPA.
Epstein was cautiously optimistic that their meeting will have a positive result.
"Most of the details will stay confidential," Epstein said. "But there are steps he needs to take to earn his way back. If he does so, we will see him in spring training and welcome him back."
Epstein said that Zambrano seemed sincere and contrite in the meeting, but he's taking a wait-and-see approach.
"From what I understand, he's seemed that way before," Epstein said. "So this is a trust-but-verify situation."
Epstein stayed the course when asked if this decision precludes him from trying to trade Zambrano this offseason.
"Right now, we're going to give him the right to earn his way back as a Cub," Epstein said.
Zambrano's status as a 10-and-5 man (10 years in the major leagues and five with his present team) gives him veto rights over any potential trade. He has one year left on the $91 million contract extension that he signed in 2008. The Cubs owe Zambrano $17,885,000 for next season. One final clause in Zambrano's contract stipulates that if he finishes in the top four for the Cy Young award in 2012, he gets an automatic $19.4 million as a vesting players option in 2013.
In 24 starts last season, Zambrano went 9-7 with a 4.82 ERA.
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.