”There was nothing wrong with the investment. This guy was an outstanding pitcher in the National League, in the game, for the four or five years before that. And there’s no question that the deal was a solid one in the industry. He certainly would have been one of the hotter tickets on the street if that thing went to the end of the season.”
This is Jim Hendry, talking to the Chicago Sun-Times about the Carlos Zambrano contract, which was signed in August of 2007 with free agency looming for the Cubs ace. The $91.5 million contract is now seen as an albatross. Here’s how it breaks down, starting in 2008, via Cot’s Contracts
08:$15M, 09:$17.75M, 10:$17.875M, 11:$17.875M, 12:$18M, 13:$19.25M vesting player option
Given that the option only vests if Zambrano finishes first or second in Cy Young voting in the 2011 or top four in 2012, we can be relatively safe in assuming that the contract will expire after the 2012 season. When we look back at Zambrano’s performance up to and including 2007, was Jim Hendry actually justified in handing Zambrano such a large contract?
Let’s take a look at Zambrano’s 2004-2007, the years that should be the deciding factors in this contract. 2002 and 2003 are far enough removed that their impact on Zambrano’s predicted future performance is minimal.
2004 (age 22-23): 209.2 IP, 8.1 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9, 3.57 FIP, 3.80 tERA, 3.88 xFIP, 2.75 ERA
2005 (age 23-24): 223.1 IP, 8.1 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9, 3.70 FIP, 4.36 tERA, 3.54 xFIP, 3.26 ERA
2006 (age 24-25): 214.0 IP, 8.8 K/9, 4.8 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9, 4.14 FIP, 4.44 tERA, 4.20 xFIP, 3.41 ERA
2007 (age 25-26): 216.1 IP, 7.4 K/9, 4.2 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9, 4.58 FIP, 4.53 tERA, 4.62 xFIP, 3.95 ERA
There’s a pretty simple picture painted here. Zambrano constantly managed to outperform his peripheral numbers, mainly because of BABIPs below .290 every season. Still, he was becoming worse and worse each season, as his ridiculous HR rate in 2004 normalized and as his walk rate ballooned in 2006, followed by a stirkeout shortage in 2007. At 26, there was no reason to believe that Zambrano had already peaked, but the trend is certainly disheartening. Marcel saw Zambrano as a 3.48 ERA pitcher for 2008 and a 3.90 FIP. CHONE was less optimistic, projecting a 3.82 ERA and 4.17 FIP.
If we use Zambrano’s 3.50 ERA as our input for WAR, the deal looks excellent. Over 200 innings, that would be worth about 5 WAR, and in 2008 a marginal win was going for about $4.5M on the free agent market. Even with a discount for contract length, with Zambrano at 26 years old, the contract would pay for only 3.3 WAR. That looks like a major win for the Cubs.
If we use 3.90, close enough to Zambrano’s CHONE ERA and exactly his Marcel FIP, the deal looks like a fair market value contract. That input produces 3.5 WAR, just above what the initial contract calls for.
If we instead use 4.10, the value of Zambrano’s CHONE FIP, the deal becomes a loss for the Cubs, as Zambrano would only produce 3 WAR in the first season.
If Jim Hendry had a legitimate reason to believe that Carlos Zambrano could keep his BABIPs ridiculously low, than there was a legitimate reason to believe that Zambrano would continue to be a 3.90 ERA pitcher or better, which would make the contract a reasonable one for the Cubs. However, given DIPS theory and how successful it typically is with evaluating pitchers, it seems likely that the 4.20 FIP which CHONE projected for Zambrano (and which he actually posted in 2008) was a much more realistic expectation.
Certainly, the case that we see right now with Zambrano is among the worst-case scenarios, but there wasn’t much reason to believe that Carlos Zambrano would produce that well, especially for five years after the contract was signed. It seems to me that Hendry saw too much of the 2004-2005 Zambrano when he offered this contract and not enough of the 2006-2007 version.