Here is what seems to be the most difficult question facing Cubs management heading into the 2011 season:
Should the Cubs trade Carlos Zambrano this offseason?
Trading Zambrano is starting to look like no-win territory. There, of course, are the lobbyists that will never believe that Zambrano has or can turn a corner from his hotheaded nature or find consistency relative to a staff ace–being that dominant, innings-eating horse that he was when he got his current contract. Then, there are some who may think that he has at least established himself as a solid starter, worthy of a #2 or #3 spot in the rotation of most baseball clubs. And, as always, there has to be a middle ground on the matter.
Personally, I am doing this article in part to find out which side of the line I stand on here. There are compelling points for (past stats, the no-hitter, his desire to stay here) and against (2007, 2008, 2009, the start of 2010) keeping Zambrano, so let’s dive right in. Seeing as Zambrano started off as poorly as one can hope to never do, let’s traverse the bad of Zambrano first. After being a 4-5 WAR pitcher from 2003-2006, Zambrano put up back-to-back 2.8 WAR seasons in 2007 and 2008. He rebounded to a more in-line 3.6 in 2009, but he managed to win just 9 games (I know, I know–wins never fairly judge a pitcher, but COME ON–9 wins from the staff ace?!). And then the flood gates opened like I’ve never seen from Zambrano.
On Opening Day, Zambrano put up one of the worst lines I’ve seen from him: 1 1/3 IP, 6 H, 8 R, 8 ER, 2 BB, 1 KO, 2 HR. Of course, many remember that more as Jason Heyward’s coming out party, but many Cubs fans thought it had signified the beginning of the end for Big Z when the Cubs finally limped into the All-Star Break, and it didn’t get much better from there.
For starters, it was so bad that I have to actually type this and sound less than stabbed in the chest: Zambrano was relegated to bullpen duty after lowering his ERA to (here comes the stab) 7.45 after his fourth start. The move was two-fold: Zambrano sucked as a starter, and Grabow was worse as a reliever, meaning Z didn’t fit in his role, and no one in the bullpen fit in the 8th inning role. As a reliever in April, Zambrano allowed one earned run in four innings. Through April, Zambrano was settled to a horrific 6.56 ERA.
May saw Zambrano produce eight scoreless outing as a reliever, but it was ruined by two appearances that produced five earned runs, giving him a 5.00 ERA for the month. Of course, baseball fans know well what June brought.
The month started with three more embarrassments from the former ace, in which he posted a 4.96 ERA–15 1/3 IP, 11 R (8ER), 11 BB, 9 KO. Then, a little hope arrived: 7 IP, 1 ER, 1 BB, 7 KO; Zambrano may be back, right? WRONG. The next outing was what some thought to be the final straw.
On June 25th, Zambrano took the mound against the rival Chicago White Sox. He managed to allow four runs (all earned) on four hits in the first inning. Like clockwork, Zambrano’s annual epic meltdown arrived. He did as he frequently has, and began stomping around, throwing a fit about how players weren’t diving for balls and letting off steam in an unnecessary, childish tantrum. However, Derrek Lee would have none of it, and he confronted Zambrano. This led to a heated argument between the two, and Zambrano’s day was done after that. Shortly after, Zambrano was suspended and sent to anger management.
Should Zambrano's up-and-down year be the reason to ship him off?
That trip did wonders. Zambrano returned to the mound on July 31st, and had a scoreless two-thirds of an inning. After a couple more relief appearances, the Cubs let him back into the rotation, and he took off. Granted, the first two outings were rather rocky (10 2/3 IP, 4 ER, 9 BB), but Zambrano has been strong as a whole, in terms of on-field production.
Since coming back from rehab, Zambrano has posted a 2.23 ERA in 7 appearances (5 starts) in August, and a 0.78 ERA in 5 September starts. His ERA+ has skyrocketed to a strong 130. Of course, he needs to lower the walks (41 walks and 59 strikeouts in 67 2/3 innings pitched). Still, that he is getting a solid strikeout total and going deep into games with some frequency (4/10 starts were 7+ IP; 7/10 were 6+ IP) is a great sign. His xFIP is a much higher 4.47 on the season, but you take what you can get at this point.
And that’s the rub: do the Cubs ride the wave of success or cash out as soon as the season ends? Zambrano’s not a cheap cat–he makes$17.875 million in 2011, $18 million in 2012, has a $19.25 million vesting option (top-2 in 2011 Cy Young voting or top-4 in 2012 and healthy after 2012), plus a full no-trade clause (Jim Hendry’s bread and butter tactic to screw the team). So, even if the Cubs DO determine that moving Zambrano is the way to go, the options will be limited to a specific grouping of teams:
1. Those who actually want/need Zambrano
2. Those who can afford Zambrano
3. Those Zambrano will be willing to play for–meaning, contenders
My goal is to determine if Zambrano should be traded, not who he could go to (at least, that is the case for now). So, let us recap with a pros and cons list:
1. He has typically been durable in his career.
2. He has been a staff ace in the past.
3. He has appeared to settle down mentally.
4. He has pitched well of late.
1. He is expensive.
2. No one can ever believe he is completely past the mental breakdowns.
3. He has been rather lucky, with an ERA-xFIP of -1.11.
4. His leadership skills are less than spectacular.
5. The team has plenty of pitching prospects to replace Zambrano, and he is at a sell-high point.
So, 4 pros and 5 cons. Of course, those are in no way the end-all, be-all facts and points of interest in the matter. But there is one thing that cannot be denied: Zambrano has a fla9ir for the dramatic, and not in a good way. He is arrogant, disruptive, and childish at his worst, and the highs have not outweighed the lows lately.
In my opinion, the cubs would be better off by trading Zambrano to anyone that will take 50% of his contract or more, though I would say 70% is my magic number to absolutely get him moved. It would allow them to address the issue of a true staff ace, among other issues.
What would Zambrano bring in return? Ideally, he would bring at least what Ted Lilly brought, which really was not much–another mediocre 2B/3B like Mike Fontenot and Jeff Baker (Blake DeWitt) and a couple of mid-level prospects. The best-case scenario to me is if a team takes 70% of his contract and offers a 3-player prospect package, at least one of which is a B-level corner infield prospect.