The dream NotGraphs roster has officially been assembled. On top of Logan Morrison and Ozzie Guillen together in the same clubhouse and on the same Twitter, Miami will now house the other noted Chicago fireball, Carlos Zambrano. The Cubs ate $15 million of Zambrano’s $18 million salary for the privilege to ship him down to Florida in exchange for former top prospect and current disappointment Chris Volstad.
With Miami building a contender this offseason through the acquisitions of Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle but still ostensibly looking up at Philadelphia and Atlanta for the NL East, the addition of Zambrano on the cheap could be what pushes the Marlins into the playoffs — that is, if he has anything left in the tank.
We often hear the narrative of a player quitting on his team. Rarely do we ever see it actually happen, but Carlos Zambrano literally quit on the Cubs, packing up his locker and leaving after a rough start on August 12th. That particular last-straw start saw Zambrano yield a whopping five home runs, an especially uncharacteristic game for a player like Zambrano who so specialized in keeping the ball in the ballpark. From 2002 through 2010 — his official rookie season onward — Zambrano had never allowed more than 1.0 HR/9 until 2011, and specifically never until that final start. Without those 4.1 innings and five home runs, Zambrano allowed 14 home runs in 141.1 innings, or 0.89 per nine innings.
Although Zambrano has been something of a poster boy for why the Cubs franchise has failed over the past few years, he hasn’t been a failure on the level of a Barry Zito (bad) or Mike Hampton (constantly injured). He simply hasn’t been good enough to justify the massive five-year, $91.5 million contract extension he received in 2008, and honestly, very few pitchers have been worth the roughly 4.5 WAR per season the contract called for. Until 2011, Zambrano’s performance was still good enough to make him a top-half-of-the-rotation starter for most teams. From 2008 through 2010 Zambrano was good for at least 2.0 WAR per season and consistently outperformed his peripherals, keeping his ERA below 4.00 (ERA- below 90) in every season despite K/BB ratios under 2.0 and ground ball rates in the mid-40s.
It’s possible these mediocre peripherals or aging or his well-documented volatile mentality finally got to Zambrano in 2011, his age-30 season. Maybe he can’t do whatever it is that has allowed him to induce such weak contact over the course of his career any more. But the upside here is tremendous. Any sort of rediscovery of his previous talents could give the Marlins yet another above-average pitcher to go with Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez, Mark Buehrle and Ricky Nolasco. It’s no Four Aces and a Blanton (or Worley), but it’s a very competitive, very good starting rotation.
Of course, Zambrano is no guarantee. As much as the opportunity to play with Ozzie Guillen may excite him, the intense environment could lead to another meltdown for Big Z, or he simply may not rediscover what made him so good in his 20s. Still, at a mere $3 million and at the cost of a struggling young pitcher in Chris Volstad who may not yet be ready to contribute to a winning team, the logistics make sense for Florida. This is the kind of risk teams who are close to the playoffs need to make, and if it pays off we could very well see some October baseball in Jeffrey Loria’s fancy new digs.