Carlos Zambrano: A Decade of Interest and Outrage

The Cubs formally announced that Carlos Zambrano will not return for the remainder of the 2011 season. His original suspension (without pay) expired on September 11th but he’ll remain home (with pay) for the last two and a half weeks of the season. Carlos has one year, at $18 million, left on his deal but expect the Cubs to trade or release him this off-season. He has pitched his last game with the North side baseball club. Consider him the pitching version of Sammy Sosa who wowed fans for years before being booed out of town. The decade ‘Big Z’ spent with the team was filled with promise, excitement, frustration and disgust.

Carlos Zambrano became a starter with the Cubs in the middle of the 2002 season. His career .6068 winning percentage puts him within the top 100 of all time yet he exceeded 15 wins only three times in nine seasons as a full-time starter. This punctuates the frustration that epitomizes Zambrano’s career. He has rare athleticism for a pitcher. That is proven by his 23 career home runs which ties him with Bucky Walters for 9th all time among pitchers. This physical ability along with his pitch control and overall “stuff” should have made him one of the best pitchers of his era. But his inability to control his emotions on the field and treat his body as the tool of his trade will make him just another pitcher who never “lived up to expectations”.

Before the 2003 season began, Zambrano wasn’t considered the best pitcher on the Cubs staff. Not even close. Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Matt Clement headlined the starting staff that season and all four wound up winning 13 or more games.  Carlos failed to record a post-season victory in three attempts that post season. 2004 to 2008 would bring a string of five straight 14+ win seasons, three All Star appearances and a no-hitter (2007). He signed his 5 year, $91.5 million contract in 2007 which set up expectations that he would never live up to. A series of red flags were raised even while he put together impressive statistical seasons. Back problems, “tennis elbow” brought on by too much internet use, a fight with teammate Michael Barrett and in-game cramping due to poor hydration were among issues that kept him from realizing his potential as an elite pitcher and Cy Young winner.

The 2009 season was the beginning-of-the-end of Carlos Zambrano’s Cub career. His antics remained but the impressive production that previously justified it was gone. He didn’t win more than 11 games in any season from 2009 to 2011 and his innings pitched per season didn’t exceed 170. This was especially surprising considering he topped 200 innings in five of his previous six seasons. He was known as the Cubs workhorse pitcher. 2oo9 brought another dugout tirade and along with a missed team flight. Zambrano melted down after a bad 1st inning against the White Sox in 2010 and had an unforgettable verbal argument with respected first baseman Derrick Lee in the dugout. And following a team-issued suspension he would spend time as a middle reliever in the bullpen. The final straw for Cubs management came earlier in this forgettable 2011 season. After being ejected while pitching against the Atlanta Braves he told team personnel he was retiring and had his locker cleaned out. An excuse and apology followed but the damage was done. If Zambrano’s on-field performance hadn’t faltered in recent years, management might have accepted his latest hollow apology and brought him back to the team. But he is no longer an asset to the team and his distractions won’t be tolerated in Chicago again.

Carlos Zambrano brought a lot of excitement to the Cubs. From his no-hitter against Houston to his love of hitting, he kept us wanting more. But the frustrations he brought far outweighed his contributions to the team. Will he find a new team to give him a chance? I have no doubt that will happen. Will he finally become a good teammate and a more emotionally controlled player? Not likely. I wish Zambrano and his next team good luck together but I’m glad the Cubs chapter of the Carlos Zambrano story is complete.

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