Carlos Zambrano entered 2007 as the unquestioned ace of the Chicago Cubs‘ rotation. He had won 59 games in the four previous seasons, with a 3.14 ERA over 861 innings. Entering his age 26 season, he had an outside look at 300 wins and already had finished in the top five in Cy Young voting twice. The fans loved him only slightly less than did Dusty Baker, and then only because Baker so adored Zambrano’s durability that liking Zambrano more than Baker would scarcely have been possible.
Zambrano also had a chance to cash in big the following winter, as free agency was looming for him. That winter, at the annual Cubs Convention, one especially insistent and obnoxious fan took to yelling, “Give Carlos whatever he wants!” at every Q&A attended by GM Jim Hendry. Despite Zambrano having led the league in walks in 2006, Cubs fans were united in their devotion to the big Venezuelan.
As though following orders, Hendry signed Zambrano to a five-year, $91.5-million extension that August. By the time he made it, that looked like an odd choice on Hendry’s part. Through Aug. 15, when he signed the deal, Zambrano’s ERA for the year stood at 3.86, higher than it had been since 2001. Much more alarmingly, he had brawled with catcher Michael Barrett in the dugout in June. For whatever reason, Lou Piniella had treated Zambrano with not half as much reverence as Baker had. He had made more than one effort to rein in Zambrano’s emotion and intensity on the mound, without success, and generally seemed ill-convinced of Zambrano’s credentials as team ace.
Zambrano never would learn to coexist optimally with Piniella. They clashed over his conditioning, his role and eventually his temper. Piniella rudely gave the Game 1 start in the 2008 NLDS to Ryan Dempster, and inexplicably demoted Zambrano to the bullpen in April 2010, starting a spiral that ended with Zambrano’s dugout outburst in June against the White Sox. Zambrano won 52 games in 704 innings for Piniella. His ERA was 3.78.
Piniella is not wholly at fault here. Zambrano ought to have better adjusted to Piniella’s leadership. Larry Rothschild is a terrible pitching coach. Hendry used Zambrano as a scapegoat as the Cubs fell apart. Still, with Piniella (and his Cubbie swagger) gone, the clubhouse seems to better accommodate Zambrano’s temperament. After Piniella left last August, Zambrano went 7-0 with a 1.01 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 53.1 innings.
Now, we need to moderate our expectations for Zambrano in some ways. He was once a fastball-slider guy whose heat sat around 93 miles per hour and could touch 96. Nowadays, and really beginning in 2007 or 2008, he throws more in the low 90s and high 80s and relies heavily on a splitter, a cutter and a slider. His stuff is less electric, and his control has improved only marginally.
His first start in the Mike Quade era, which only really began this spring, was just mediocre, but I expect Zambrano to have a strong season. By year’s end, he could re-establish himself as a 3.50-ERA guy with strikeout upside and groundball proclivity. Who knows what goes on inside that man’s skull? Not me. But I think there are still skills there and Zambrano seems ready to bounce back big-time this season.