On April 21 the Cubs were 5--9, riding a four-game losing streak and idling in fifth place in the NL Central. A major reason for that was the Chicago bullpen, which had a 6.15 ERA and four blown saves in seven opportunities. With lefthanded starter Ted Lilly ready to be activated from the disabled list, the Cubs needed to make room for him in the rotation and shore up their relief corps. But instead of making the obvious move—shifting righthander Ryan Dempster, a former closer, back to a relief role—they sent Carlos Zambrano to the pen. Yes, that Carlos Zambrano, Chicago's Opening Day starter and the man the Cubs gave a five-year, $91.5 million contract in 2007. "[I was] a little bit surprised, obviously," says catcher Geovany Soto. "That's our ace."
This is an article from the May 3, 2010 issue
Make that former ace. Zambrano, who last worked out of the bullpen in 2002, will be used as an eighth-inning setup man, and he has said he is happy to fill whatever role the team assigns him. It's true that the eighth has been a disaster for the Cubs—they had a 9.47 ERA in that inning through Sunday—and that they're short on quality righthanded relievers. But if Zambrano were pitching like the top-of-the-rotation stud he's paid to be, he wouldn't have been moved. He was 1--2 with a 7.40 ERA and 1.89 WHIP, including an eight-run, 1 1/3-inning debacle on Opening Day against the Braves. One NL scout says Zambrano has been "wildly inconsistent" in velocity.
The Cubs say the bullpen assignment will be temporary, but Big Z, who will make $17.9 million this season, is part of a larger long-term problem for the team. In addition to being guaranteed $53.75 million through the end of 2012, Zambrano, 28, has a full no-trade clause. He's not the only one in the Cubs clubhouse with a contract that could become an albatross for the team. At age 34 Alfonso Soriano (guaranteed $90 million through 2014) covers little ground in leftfield, and his home run total and slugging percentage have declined every year since 2007. And third baseman Aramis Ramirez (guaranteed $32.4 million through 2011) was batting .139 through Sunday. Soriano and Ramirez also have no-trade clauses; combined, those three players account for more than a third of the Cubs' $144 million payroll this season.
The team put a positive spin on the Zambrano move, saying he's fixing a problem that can't be solved with a trade. Assistant G.M. Randy Bush says "most clubs are taking the tack, 'We're going to watch our club play for 30 or 40 games.' The way it was going, we didn't want to wait."
Zambrano can fill a crucial role, but a reliever who throws 75 innings a year is no replacement for a starter who should give his team 200. After being told of the move, Zambrano made a strange request of manager Lou Piniella: that he be returned to the rotation if Chicago makes the playoffs. Unless he finds his groove as a starter long before then, pitching in October won't be a problem for anyone on the Cubs.
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