There's an old cliche that tells us you can't teach talent.
While that may be true, some players get more out of their talent than others. To date, Carlos Zambrano has always fallen into the underachiever category.
Look, it has never been a question of whether he has the stuff to succeed; rather, it has always been a question of preparation, self-control, and health.
It's not just a matter of statistics, though everyone likes to point out that Big Z has never won 20 games in a season. In fact, it can't be just about stats, for they fail to tell the whole truth.
First of all, if you are still judging pitchers by their win-loss record, you are living in the past. There are so many variables that go into a decision that are beyond a pitcher's control, such as run support and defense, that to make this about winning 20 games would be shallow.
Instead, the outward signs of a visibly upset Carlos Zambrano angrily shouting at teammates, breaking a bat over his knee, or killing a water cooler looms over the big right-hander's broad shoulders.
And that's too bad because it clouds the enormous talent exuding from this Cubs "wanna-be" ace. He should be the ace, and he has been in the past, but he usually isn't because things get in the way that are within his control.
One of those things relate to his conditioning, or lack thereof. In the past, there were issues over his weight, and whether or not he was drinking enough water.
And at times it seemed he was almost more interested in hitting a baseball than pitching one.
But this year, he is supposedly a changed man. He has lost weight, done his exercises, and will not be pinch-hitting during the season unless absolutely necessary.
In other words, could it be that Carlos is finally, dare we say, maturing?
Hey, the proof is in the pudding, and the results have to be on the mound. No, not winning any arbitrary set number of games, but instead delivering consistently solid pitching performances would be nice.
Limiting his walks, making fewer mistakes, and pitching deeper into ballgames is what we hope for and what this ball club desperately needs if it's going to contend in 2010 and beyond.
And Carlos needs to understand that there is a fine line between having the fire and passion and being out of control.
The best pitchers are often cerebral assassins. Consider Greg Maddux, for instance. You seldom saw him display much emotion during a game, yet you knew the competitive fire was burning brightly underneath.
He was trying to out-think you, not throw a baseball through your body. And that's what Carlos needs to understand. That's what Carlos needs to do.
There is certainly still time. He turns 29 in June. He can regain his past level of performance, perhaps even surpass it, but he will need to keep working hard and staying healthy in order to make consistent, quality starts.
His arm still appears to be strong. His SO/9 last year was higher than his career average and the opposing batting average on balls in play, BABIP, was higher in 2009 than in any of his other full seasons (Bill James, for one, expects that to decline by more than .25 points next season), implying some bad luck and equally bad defense.
In short, Big Z can be the ace he seems to truly want to be and that Cubs fans have been clamoring for. He did have 17 quality starts last year despite a myriad of ailments.
Let's not bet our mortgages on it, but there's no harm in keeping our fingers crossed. We're Cubs fans, after all, we should be used to it.