Carlos Zambrano is perilously close to the breaking point.
The erstwhile ace of the Chicago Cubs staff fell further than ever from the good graces of fans and the media in 2009, when a string of injuries, temper tantrums, and continued control issues held him to the fewest innings and victories he has logged since 2002.
Zambrano made two trips to the disabled list, each time with injuries unrelated to throwing. His conditioning came under scrutiny after some members of the media suggested his second injury could have been averted if he had been in better shape.
By the late stages of the season, Zambrano became so frustrated that he promised to retire if he suffered through another season as difficult as 2009.
That last statement, though seemingly innocuous, may cut as deeply to the heart of Zambrano's problems as any other measure could.
Quite simply, for all his machismo and ferocious competitive drive, Big Z lacks a certain mental toughness. It is no lack of concentration or effort, nor of conditioning, and certainly not of skill. The problem is entirely contained in his head, specifically in his insecurities.
Although my natural tendency as a baseball analyst is toward statistical evaluations, it is exceedingly difficult to quantify the impact of a player's everyday emotional issues in terms of performance.
Zambrano has spent the overwhelming majority of the offseason in Chicago, which should keep his focus sharp. He also has vowed to work harder in his conditioning program, which should keep reporters off his back and relieve some degree of his stress.
If he intends to really improve in 2010, however, he will need the kind of nonchalance that he uses to maintain focus and keep laser-locked command of his pitches.
Because Zambrano is a two-seam fastball specialist, and because two-seam heaters are often tough to throw to opposite-handed batters, we should expect that his wide platoon split (60 points of OBP) will persist. He will have to learn to work around that obstacle and to get out right-handed batters with ruthless efficiency so that he can focus more clearly on getting out left-handed hitters like Milwaukee's Prince Fielder.
Ultimately, the stuff is still there for the 28-year-old Zambrano, and so is the attitude. His strikeout rate rose in 2009 after falling dangerously low in previous years for a pitcher with Zambrano's control.
Of course, as the league's best-hitting pitcher, Zambrano also adds about six runs to Chicago's ledger as a hitter, relative to the average pitcher. That information helps us understand his true value a bit better.
Here is how I project Zambrano in 2010:
* 31 starts
* 192 innings
* 162 strikeouts
* 76 walks
* 1.33 WHIP
* 3.71 ERA
* 3.97 FIP
With numbers like those, Zambrano would not return to the ace status he once enjoyed in Chicago's rotation. He would, however, put himself back into the consistent and positive rhythm of contribution he maintained from 2003-07 and work his way back into favor with Cubs fans and teammates.
Watch for other profiles of the 2010 Cubs, which I will be doing throughout the remainder of the offseason. Here are some of the ones already done, and some on the way soon!