Carlos Zambrano has had an up and down return to the Cubs’ starting rotation, but his most recent start has some people hoping he has turned a corner. That hope has some people thinking he might be worth keeping around next season, since it would appear the Cubs will be paying him to pitch next season anyway. Count me among those people.

Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Carlos Zambrano points skyward following the end of the third inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on August 14, 2010. UPI/Bill Greenblatt Photo via Newscom

The Sun-Times talked about it today, mentioning that the Cubs’ front office might be thinking it’s worth gambling on Z once again.

Meanwhile, every step forward the $91.5 million Zambrano takes in his post-tirade bid to rebuild competitive form and the trust of his team, he gives management another reason to believe they might be able to count on him to handle at least a middle-quality spot in the rotation next year.

With two pricey years left on Zambrano’s contract, backing off the urge to try to move him would save at least one headache for general manager Jim Hendry in what promises to be a busy offseason.

When I detailed the potential starting rotation candidates for 2011, I dismissed Zambrano as an option, assuming that the Cubs will move him no matter what. That probably remains the case, but how about we pretend for a few hundred words that Zambrano comes back in 2011.

First things first, the Cubs need to leave him as a starting pitcher all season. The more Zambrano starts this season, the more it becomes obvious that the bullpen move is largely responsible for his poor overall stats. Paul Sullivan pointed out on twitter earlier this week that, opening day excluded, Zambrano has a 3.72 ERA as a starter. He’s been a starter since 2001, has proven himself to be a reliable performer, and was suddenly moved to a new role. Very few players would have succeed given the constant role changes Zambrano has dealt with this season, even if the most recent batch was 100% Zambrano’s fault.

What can the Cubs expect from Zambrano in 2011? Most of his pre-2010 projections had his FIP in the high 3 range, which is right in line with his career numbers. Projecting that again would probably be too optimistic, but it is possible to think he might replicate his performance from 2007 or 2008. A FIP in the 4.30 range with 180 innings pitched, certainly not worth the $18 million owed to Big Z, but certainly an improvement over this season.

So the question is, would that type of performance from Zambrano be more productive than what the team would get from his replacement? If the Cubs really want to win in 2011, is it really a better plan to count on Jay Jackson or Chris Archer? Essentially the Cubs would be taking the same gamble, except Zambrano has a higher upside (for next season) and less downside. While Jackson, Archer, or whatever other prospect could have an amazing rookie season, they could also be very bad, like this season, and lead to a revolving door of bad pitchers.

With Zambrano, the Cubs have a proven performer, who, at the very least, will eat innings. No matter where he plays next season, the Cubs will be paying him. They might as well keep him around for one more year, let him start, and hope they can get lucky. With high priced free agents no longer an option, it’s the best thing the Cubs can do.

1 thought on “Gambling on Z in 2011 Still the Cubs’ Best Bet”

  1. Raymond Robert Koenig

    No. Zambrano cannot be on the Cubs’ roster in 2011 if they hope to contend for the postseason. He’s a “me first” person. There’s no room on a winning team for players like him. If the Cubs keep him, count on more Z “epiZodes”.

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