There has been a lot of speculation about how, and where, the Chicago Cubs could trade their ace, Carlos Zambrano. After a subpar season that's seen Zambrano be hurt, immature, and selfish, his salary and production are headed in opposite directions, and many Cubs fans would like to see him out of town.
Let's first set the record straight. Zambrano is a good major league pitcher. In fact, he's the only pitcher under 30 years of age to have eclipsed 100 career wins in all of baseball. Throughout his career, he's been durable and a winner.
But then there's the attitude, and the salary, and a team that's underperforming in the Windy City. How's that target on your back feel, Carlos?
This is an intriguing time in recent history for the idea of trading a pitcher like Zambrano, both in respect to the Cubs and all of Major League Baseball, because of everything that surrounds "Big Z."
First, historically, aces aren't easily dealt. Despite that, there have been a handful of top-tier pitchers, including Johan Santana and CC Sabathia, traded in the last few years. So there's not only precedent, but also an established market for an ace.
Secondly, there are other aces that could potentially be on the trading block in the next 14 months. Toronto shopped their ace, Roy Halladay, hard this season at the deadline but didn't get an offer they were willing to take in return for their former Cy Young winner.
There have also been rumors that Seattle isn't shopping but is willing to listen to offers for their ace, "King Felix" Hernandez.
This coming winter's free agent class for starting pitchers is weak. Unless the options for an injured Brandon Webb or recently traded Cliff Lee aren't picked up, or if for some unknown reason the Red Sox don't pick up Josh Beckett's option, there aren't any headline starters coming available.
Do names like John Lackey, Rich Harden, or Jarrod Washburn get your motor running? I didn't think so. Not to be a No. 1 starter.
So the value for a starter via trade is increased because of the thin free agent market. This is where the differences between Zambrano, Halladay, and Hernandez become so pivotal.
Halladay will be a free agent after 2010, while Hernandez is already stalking his way through arbitration. He is currently owning the AL West for only $3.6 million. Zambrano is due nearly $54 million through 2011, with a vesting option available for 2012 that would pay him over $19 million.
So the question for general managers craving an ace becomes price...both now, in prospects and major league talent, and eventual dollars.
What kind of money will Halladay command as a free agent in 14 months, especially when guys like Zambrano are making $18 million?
If the prospect of Halladay becoming a free agent after one season isn't scary enough, how much will 23-year-old Hernandez stand to make? He has 54 career wins already and has become one of the elite, dominant starters in baseball.
Ask the Phillies and Ryan Howard how great arbitration can be for an emerging superstar.
Let's place this entire conversation into the context of the Cubs' roster. There is really one more year that these Chicago Cubs will be together; Derrek Lee and Ted Lilly have contracts that expire after 2010, and Aramis Ramirez has a player option for 2011. The nucleus could be gone in 2011.
The Cubs, at least from the perspective of mid-September 2009, are going for broke in 2010. It's their last chance to do something special together.
So what, then, is a realistic place to begin a conversation about a player the caliber of Zambrano? He is expensive, but he's also under contract for the next three, possibly four, years.
If you're thinking the Cubs would move Zambrano for an established major league veteran, then you have to look at players that are making a pretty penny and could be reasonably moved by their current team. Those players would have to also serve a role for the Cubs moving forward, and the team taking Zambrano would have to be one looking to add pitching.
How about the Texas Rangers and Michael Young?
Young could come to Chicago and move back to his preferred position of shortstop, which he lost to super rookie Elvis Andrus this year. Defensively he's certainly as good as the Cubs' Ryan Theriot, but he would bring middle-of-the-order offense with that.
Young is due $16 million per season from 2010-13, which is a lower annual salary than Zambrano, but for one, perhaps two years longer than Zambrano is under contract. The Rangers want/need pitching and could move Young.
How about the Tampa Bay Rays and Carl Crawford?
This would be more of a stretch for the Cubs to pull the trigger but could make sense for both teams. The Cubs would need to move an outfielder to make room for Crawford but would certainly love to have a leadoff man and decent defensive outfielder rather than one of the outfielders they have now.
The gamble for the Cubs would be Crawford's contract status; he has a club option for $10 million for 2010, and then he's a free agent. The Cubs would obviously want to get him locked up longer than one year if they moved Zambrano for him.
The Rays might be looking to add another starter after having traded Scott Kazmir to Anaheim. They have a lot of young, talented arms, but putting Zambrano in a rotation with David Price and Jeff Niemann would take the pressure off the kids to perform.
This is a long shot for the Rays, but they have the potential for a lot of money to come off their books in the next two winters. Crawford, Pat Burrell, and Carlos Pena could all be gone after 2010.
How about the Angels for Gary Matthews Jr.?
This would serve one singular function for the Cubs: salary dump. Matthews is due $23 million in the next two years, which is a ton of coin for a backup outfielder. The Angels would be spending more money by adding Zambrano, but they would be unloading a dead weight deal to bring in a potential ace.
The Cubs would be saving roughly $10 million over the next two years and would lose an expensive 2012 option by making this deal. Also, as a stark contrast to Milton Bradley and Alfonso Soriano, Matthews plays excellent defense.
If we're not talking about established major league veterans, then it begins to get tricky. There are certainly a lot of teams that would love to acquire a pitcher of Zambrano's caliber, but the Cubs' asking price is what could get interesting.
If, for instance, the LA Dodgers called, there's a strong chance that the Cubs could ask for one of their emerging young stars. Would the Dodgers want to part ways with James Loney, Matt Kemp, or Chad Billingsley?
If the Boston Red Sox called, would they consider moving Jonathan Papelbon? I already wrote a piece about this possibility.
If you really want to stretch your imagination, what about a straight-up deal for Halladay? Would Toronto consider moving the ace they have for one more year for a younger one they could have for two more seasons?
What about Seattle? Would they consider moving Hernandez and avoiding the overwhelming potential ceiling for a future contract for their ace to have Zambrano signed for three more seasons?
There are a world of possibilities for Cubs management to consider this winter if they indeed are interested in moving their ace. One of those considerations will likely be if current general manager Jim Hendry is the man that makes a decision on Zambrano.
If Zambrano is moved, where to, and what for are all major issues. This could be an interesting winter.