Carlos Zambrano hasn't pitched in the majors this year but he did pitch for Venezuela at the World Baseball Classic. (Juan Salas/Icon SMI)
When Carlos Zambrano hit free agency for the first time this past winter at the age of 31, he didn't find any takers, not an incredible surprise given his troublesome reputation and his uneven performances over the past two seasons. Now, though, both he and a suitor have reached a point of mutual desperation: the 31-year-old righty signed a minor league deal with the Phillies.
A three-time All-Star with the Cubs during his 2001-2011 tenure, Zambrano owns a career total of 132 wins to go with a tidy 3.66 ERA (119 ERA+), not to mention an impressive 24 homers as a hitter (and a .238/.248/.388 line). But numbers aside, he earned a reputation for instability and immaturity via several high-profile outbursts, including a 2007 dugout brawl with teammate Michael Barrett, a 2009 suspension for bumping an umpire, a 2010 suspension by the Cubs following another dugout altercation -- resulting in a trip to the bullpen as well as enrollment in an anger management program -- and a 2011 suspension by the team after an ejection followed by his cleaning out his locker and declaring his intention to retire.
Zambrano wound up on the Disqualified List after that Aug. 12, 2011 meltdown, and never pitched another game for the Cubs. The incoming Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer regime dumped him on the Miami Marlins in January 2012, agreeing to pay $15.5 million of the $18 million he had remaining on his five-year, $91.5 million contract. The Marlins hoped that Ozzie Guillen — a notorious hothead himself — could relate to him better than Chicago managers Lou Piniella or Mike Quade had, and that the Venezuela-born pitcher could be one of the many players who could help reach the area's heavily Latino population.
Zambrano was generally well-behaved during his time with Miami (the same couldn't be said for Guillen), and he got off to a strong start, with a 2.81 ERA and nine quality starts in his first 11 turns through June 3. His performance soon deteriorated due to control woes; he lasted more than five innings in just two of his next nine starts while walking 38 hitters in 41 1/3 innings. Sent to the bullpen, his performance leveled off , but he made just five appearances totaling 3 1/3 innings after Aug. 24 as the team sank into oblivion. He finished the year with a 4.49 ERA and 5.1 walks per nine, against just 6.5 strikeouts, in 132 1/3 innings.
Zambrano sought a contract over the winter but didn't find any takers. He joined the Venezuela team for the World Baseball Classic attempting to showcase his talents, but made just one appearance, a 3 2/3 inning start in which he allowed two runs on one hit and two walks. Earlier this month, he agreed to a deal with the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League, but didn't sign the contract, as he was suddenly drawing interest from major league teams, with the Phillies apparently offering the best opportunity.
At 19-21, the Phils don't appear to be going anywhere, but their pitching depth has taken a hit with Roy Halladay undergoing shoulder surgery that will probably end his season, brave faces to the contrary. With a lack of upper-level rotation depth in the minors now that Tyler Cloyd and Jonathan Pettibone are both in the starting five filling in for Halladay and John Lannan (quad strain, early June ETA), they decided to take a chance. From Matt Gelb on Philly.com:
"We are just looking to add some depth, starting pitching depth," assistant general manager Scott Proefrock said. "Right now he will go to extended spring training and throw bullpens and progress from there. No promises were made. It is just an opportunity to add to the starting pitching."
Zambrano will report to the team's facility in Clearwater for extended spring training, and once he builds up arm strength, he'll presumably get taken out for a spin at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. He can ask for his release if the Phillies don't promote him to the majors by July 1. It's anybody's guess whether he can rediscover his old magic, but the stakes are low, and you can't blame either side for taking a chance.