On August 17, 2007, it was difficult to see exactly how stable the Chicago Cubs would be in the long-term.
There were still seven years left on Alfonso Soriano's contract, four left on Aramis Ramirez's, and three on Derrek Lee's and Ted Lilly's, but Soriano, Lee, and Lilly were all heading into their age 32 seasons. Young players like Rich Hill, Sean Marshall, Carlos Marmol, Angel Guzman, and Ryan Theriot had shown some promise but weren't far enough into their careers to even approach status as a known quantity.
Michael Barrett, who was eventually traded, and Jacque Jones were having much worse offensive seasons than expected. Mark Prior, who was later released, had season-ending shoulder surgery before the season, and Kerry Wood was only 5.2 innings into his comeback as a full-time reliever.
And then there was the ownership situation.
Back in April of that year, all shares of the Tribune Co., the parent company of the Cubs at the time, were bought out by Sam Zell. The new owner immediately announced his plans to sell the team, Wrigley Field, and possibly even the naming rights to Wrigley Field.
So when the Cubs announced that they had reached a five-year, $91.5 million agreement with 26-year-old ace Carlos Zambrano, buying out his first five years of free agency, it was clear that they were trying to lock up someone that North Siders could count on for years to come.
The talent was clearly there and he had already put up some impressive numbers for a young pitcher. Between 2003 and 2007, Zambrano struck out 7.9 batters per nine innings, held batters to a .224/.315/.346 batting line, kept up a 3.30 ERA, and averaged 215 innings pitched every year.
But Zambrano's temper had already become a topic for discussion after his altercation with Barrett in June of 2007. Meanwhile, his velocity had already begun to drop. Also, in his five seasons of being a full-time major league starter, 2007 was easily the worst up to that point.
His 2008 campaign would have set a new low point for Carlos (relatively speaking) if not for his September 14 no-hitter against the displaced Astros with an arm fresh off of 11 days rest. Rather than bouncing back the following year, 2009 followed the same trend as the previous two and was the second straight season below 200 innings with only 169.1 on the year due to two stints on the disabled list.
Coming into this season, Zambrano had dropped 15 pounds, his cutter, and, supposedly, his attitude. Expectations were high, including from manager Lou Piniella, but Z's strong performance in spring training was followed by an ugly season opener against the Braves, three sub-par outings, and a switch to the bullpen.
He had his ups and downs in his five weeks as a reliever, returned to the rotation with three more sub-par starts, and had a very solid outing against the Angels on June 20.
Then all hell broke loose.
In the first inning of an interleague game against the White Sox, Zambrano gave up four runs on four hits. He then had a now-infamous tirade in the dugout directed towards his teammates' effort on the field, was removed from the game, and was suspended indefinitely.
Opinions flew about what the Cubs should do with the big right-hander, but the vast majority stayed within the same theme: get rid of him however you can.
The Cubs put Zambrano on the restricted list on June 29, announced that he was going to be evaluated by professionals and undergo treatment for his anger issues, and made it clear that he would return to the bullpen when he eventually did come back.
After four minor league outings in late July, he finally returned to the big league team for three unimpressive outings from the bullpen before returning to the rotation once again.
So what has he done since then?
Well, he's averaged 6.1 innings per game in nine starts, posted a 1.42 ERA, racked up 7.9 strikeouts per nine innings, and held opposing batters to a .194/.315/.235 batting line.
His walk totals have been less-than-stellar, leading to the .315 opponent on-base percentage I just mentioned, but he has otherwise been the sort of pitcher Cubs fans had hoped for when he signed his deal just over three years ago.
Now the Cubs might have their ace back after a three-year hiatus. And he's still just 29 years old.
The fact that he's performing at this level with his velocity near the lowest levels it has ever been is very encouraging for the simple reason that it might very well signal his maturation as a pitcher. If he has also matured as a person, then all the backlash towards his tirade earlier this season might be an overreaction in hindsight.
Rather than being the impetus for his departure from the only organization he's ever known, his tantrum might have been the wake-up call he needed to get his career back on track for its final two or three years.
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