Carlos Zambrano and the Chicago Cubs had it good for a while, you know? They burned bright and hot for a decade, during which time Zambrano made three All-Star teams, won three Silver Sluggers and got into a whole lot of trouble. He might get in trouble again in 2012, but if so, he will do so for the Miami Marlins.
The trade sending Zambrano to South Beach will also involve Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and the Cubs paying the Marlins about $16 million of the $18 million owed to Zambrano. In return, Chicago gets Chris Volstad, 25, a right-handed pitcher of diminishing renown.
It's far from a game-changer, but this deal is a big win for the Cubs in the long-term. Epstein and Hoyer are putting on a clinic in sabermetric rebuilding. Here are five reasons Cubs fans should delight in this trade.
I'm not a big believer in the impact of clubhouse chemistry or culture, but in this case, it seemed important for all involved that the Cubs move past the Zambrano era.
Jim Hendry never established a coherent organizational identity or philosophy during his tenure. Epstein, Hoyer and new manager Dale Sveum now must create a Cubs Way, and those cannot be empty words.
It should include a systematic evaluation system; uniform rules for conduct and conditioning; and a predilection for pitchers who minimize walks. By every measure, Zambrano is a poor fit in that new framework.
Trading Zambrano destroys one more link to the Cubs' decadent past.
In 2003, Kerry Wood, Mark prior and Matt Clement all racked up over 200 innings pitched for the Cubs. The team leader in innings pitched, though, was Carlos Zambrano. At age 22, Zambrano pitched 214 frames in 32 starts, topping out at 129 pitches in one outing.
Through age 25, Zambrano pitched 977 big-league innings. They were high-stress frames, too, because during that time, he walked 447 batters. By necessity, the Cubs asked a lot of him, but at times, they stretched him past reasonable limits and strained him permanently.
That strain didn't manifest itself in injuries, the most identifiable and easily attributable result of early pitching abuse. Zambrano did have occasional problems with back and leg injuries, but those don't trace back to overuse.
Instead, Zambrano's arm simply went a bit dead. In 2004, he peaked with an average fastball velocity of 92.9 miles per hour. Beginning in 2006, though, that figure began to drop. By 2010, Zambrano averaged scarcely 90 miles per hour on his heat. His swinging-strike percentage fell, too, from 9.7 percent in 2003 to 6.7 percent in 2011.
Though Zambrano is only 30 years old, the Cubs have more or less gassed him already. His arm is clearly never going to bounce back, at least without a move to the bullpen.
Given the position the Cubs were in logistically, his recent performance and the heft of his contract, Zambrano fetched a very fair price en route to Florida. The Cubs added a sturdy back-end starting pitcher when they pried Chris Volstad away from the Marlins.
Volstad is young, and under team control through 2014. He had a rough year according to raw numbers in 2011, but managed to strike out 16.3 percent of all batters faced and walk only 6.8 percent. He's a huge pitcher with a long-levered delivery, and his low-90s sinker produced ground balls on over 52 percent of all balls in play against him last season. That ranked 13th out of 94 qualifying starters for ground-ball rate.
Volstad doesn't have special stuff or sky-high upside, but he should be a steady performer for a team that has upgraded its infield defense this winter. Three seasons for one is a nice trade-off anytime.
To expand on that point, it's not about 2012 at all. The Cubs have a great many organizational objectives this winter, none of which focus on the coming season. If they were worried about that, they would not be committing to Bryan LaHair at first base, and they would not be entertaining offers to trade Matt Garza.
That's also important in considering the decision to trade Zambrano. It's very possible the Cubs traded the pitcher who will provide more value in 2012, but again, that's not the concern. Volstad will be around for the next potentially competitive Cubs squad in 2014.
That's important, too. Even if Volstad (and for that matter, Travis Wood, whom the team added in a trade of Sean Marshall last month) never become more than fourth starters, they will be solid options to eat innings at the back of a Cubs rotation years down the road. Before these deals, the Cubs had only Garza and Randy Wells as team-controlled starters beyond 2012. Every move that adds medium- and long-term depth to the pitching staff is a good one.
This, by far, is the biggest reason for a Cubs fan to be pleased with the Zambrano deal. By adding another big-league starter, the Cubs continue to prepare for the potential loss of Matt Garza in a trade.
It doesn't matter how bad a club is willing to be in a given season; they still must field a team each day. When the offseason began, the front office in Chicago knew they did not want Zambrano to be part of the Opening Day rotation. Therefore, they perceived a starting rotation of Garza, Ryan Dempster and some combination of Randy Wells, Andrew Cashner, Jeff Samardzija and Casey Coleman.
After the first two names there, things get dicey. It's very possible that, if they had not added to the roster and had dealt Garza, the Cubs would have ended up forced to rush young pitchers like Trey McNutt, or work Cashner to the point of re-injuring his shoulder.
Instead, this trade brings in Volstad, who joins Wood and Dempster as sure things in the 2012 rotation. Wells and Cashner would still be in play behind those three if Garza were traded, but free-agent signee Andy Sonnanstine could make spot starts throughout the season to keep the Cubs from running their young arms ragged.
Even then, the team could well trade Garza for a pitcher already prepared to contribute at the MLB level (like Jacob Turner of the Tigers) or sign a low-profile free agent to help plug innings gaps. In any case, Volstad's arrival means the Cubs have 700 innings accounted for in their starting rotation, even without Garza. That allows the front office to get the best deal available for their top incumbent hurler.