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Volstad Heads to Chicago

Let the Theo Epstein overhaul continue.

Matt Garza might have been the most popular name tossed around this off-season in Wrigleyville, but Carlos Zambrano was the first Chicago Cubs pitcher to be traded. After three injury riddled season — and a ton of headaches — the Cubs elected to deal the sole survivor of the Dusty Baker era to the Miami Marlins. In return, the  Cubs get 25-year-old Chris Volstad. While Volstad hasn’t established himself as a top of the line pitcher in the majors, this deal might just work out in the Cubs’ favor.

Chicago had lots of reasons to deal Zambrano. While his frequent mound blowups and inability to control his emotions likely fed into the decision, Zambrano’s contract and his declining performance were more likely the main reasons behind the move.

Over the past two seasons, in fact, Zambrano has barely been better than Volstad.

*This isn’t entirely fair. If you include 2009, Zambrano out-WARs Volstad 6.8 to 3.4. Volstad was awful that season, however, and has improved since. Zambrano has been in decline since 2009, which is why I compared their past two seasons.

While Zambrano is better at preventing home runs and racking up strikeouts, he’s only thrown 275.1 innings in the past two seasons. Some of that is due to injuries, some is due to team-imposed suspensions and some is due to an ill-fated move to the bullpen during the 2010 season. Plus, he hasn’t shown the same durability he flashed earlier in his career — when he had five straight seasons of at least 200 innings pitched.

Volstad might not strike out many batters, but he limits walks much better than Zambrano. Volstad hasn’t been the most durable pitcher, either — but he’s still thrown 60-plus more innings than Zambrano during the past two seasons. Their ERAs might not show it, but Volstad has been nearly as good since 2010. Zambrano’s lead in FIP is a slim 4.17 to 4.33, and Volstad actually posted a superior xFIP (4.05) in that period.

Volstad’s ability to outperform his ERA points to a trend for Cubs pitchers this upcoming season. All five of the Cubs’ current starters — Volstad, Travis Wood, Randy Wells, Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza — posted stronger xFIPs when compared to their ERAs. Four out of the five — Wells being the outlier — posted a lower FIP, as well. Volstad’s acquisition marks the second pitcher Epstein has acquired this off-season with this statistical trait. Perhaps Epstein thinks Volstad’s peripherals are more indicative of his talent than his ERA suggests.

Zambrano — who is owed $19 million this season — will come cheap for the Marlins, as the Cubs are rumored to be paying a significant portion of his salary. At the same time, Volstad will be entering his first year of arbitration and won’t be due to receive a significant raise. He’ll also be under team control for two more seasons, while Zambrano is a free agent after 2012. The Cubs still will be paying Zambrano far more than Volstad next season, but that matters little to Epstein, who inherited Big Z’s bad contract.

All told, the Cubs and Marlins swapped fifth starters. Zambrano just hasn’t been all that good — or consistent –over the past couple of seasons. And he caused huge headaches for his coaching staff and the Cubs’ front office. Volstad might offer little upside, but he’s been nearly as good as Zambrano — minus the drama. At the very least, Epstein spends less money on Tylenol this season. At best, he also gets the better pitcher.