With the Cubs bullpen off to a predictably terrible start -- if you think it wasn't predictable, click here -- I have been fretting about general manager Jim Hendry handing out several Brandon Lyon-esque contracts next offseason, or, worse yet, having him really panic and pull the trigger on a worthy successor to the Jon Garland-for-Matt Karchner / Kyle Lohse-for-Rick Aguilera / Jose Ceda-for-Kevin Gregg deals that have literally shaved years off my life -- that's right, each of those transactions came to my apartment in the form of a razor, and with patented lift-and-cut technology smoothly removed time from my existence in a single stroke. Sure, it sounds exceptionally efficient, but the whole process is, in reality, quite painful.
Anyway, the upshot is, I've been dreading the story coming off the wire of an Andrew Cashner-for-Tim Byrdak deal, or perhaps a Jay Jackson-for-Takashi Saito swap. And then I saw this headline on ESPN.com:
Now, I probably would've gone with something a little flashier, like Panic Move: Cubs send Zambrano to bullpen, but I do admittedly have a flair for the dramatic.
Still, that's what this is: a $53.75 million panic move.
Continuing from Bruce Levine's ESPNChicago.com report:
The Chicago Cubs confirmed reports that manager Lou Piniella is moving struggling starter Carlos Zambrano to the bullpen, in a move that may not be temporary.
"I told him we really needed him in the bullpen," Piniella told reporters.
Now granted, with Ted Lilly returning, someone had to move to the bullpen, and Zambrano could really help there, as he clearly has the greatest chance of becoming an ace reliever. Why? BECAUSE HE'S THE BEST GODDAMN PITCHER of the guys they supposedly considered: Carlos Silva, Tom Gorzelanny, and him. Which is why you want him throwing 200 innings, instead of 70.
I know the choice couldn't have been easy; unlike the bullpen, the rotation has actually been very good. Take a gander at these numbers (through 4/20):
Without a doubt, Pitcher E has ostensibly been the worst. But more tellingly, he's also been the unluckiest; while his earned run average and fielding-independent pitching stick out like Matt Stairs' belly, his expected fielding-independent pitching -- using a formula that removes the home run component, which can be profoundly influenced by luck in a pitcher's home run per fly ball rate (HR/FB) in a given season -- is solidly near the front of the pack.
Pitcher E, not surprisingly, is Zambrano. Not that any of this should matter, though, because the whole stupid chart serves as an exemplar for why you don't make decisions like these based on three or four starts.
Does anyone think that Pitcher A (Silva) is not going to walk a guy all season? Or allow a home run? Or that he can maintain a .218 BABiP? None of those things are even remotely sustainable; while Silva is an excellent control pitcher, his career walk rate is 1.69 BB/9, and more importantly, he has allowed 1.12 HR/9 and a .312 BABiP. Furthermore, how much longer can we expect Starters B (Gorzelanny) and C (Randy Wells) to not allow a home run? Four innings? Five?
Moving Zambrano to the bullpen shows the same type of horribly-myopic thinking as those prospects-for-middling-reliever deals I so dread. Given the rotation's respective bodies of work the last few seasons, I don't see how Zambrano can be any worse than the #3 starter on this team, behind Ryan Dempster (Starter D) and Lilly, provided the latter is actually healthy. If I were to prioritize which of the five current starters I'd move to the 'pen, I'd go Silva, Gorzelanny, Wells, Zambrano, Dempster.
And really, just how much is Zambrano "struggling"? He undeniably had a disastrous Opening Day, and a quick glance reveals that his traditional stats through four starts -- which I think we can all agree is a totally-representative sample size, and should by all means be taken as the true measure of his ability while his 238 other career starts are completely ignored -- are pretty bad: 1-2, 7.45 ERA. But over his last three games, he's actually 1-1, 4.00, going at least five innings in each while allowing three earned runs or fewer.
More importantly, though, his K-rate has been superb, with 26 in 19.1 innings. As always, he's walking too many guys, but his BB rate isn't that out of line with his career mark (4.1). So Zambrano's struggles are basically a function of two things over which he has varying degrees of control: home runs and hits allowed.
Yes, the home run is one of the three true outcomes, but as I mentioned earlier, there is still an element of luck involved in how many a pitcher yields, especially when you're talking about such a small sample size. After being remarkably stingy with the gopher ball for most of his career, including allowing just 10 homers in 169.1 IP last year, Zambrano has already given up four in 2010. But that's four lousy pitches; if two of them had turned into warning-track outs instead of clearing the fence, Zambrano's home run rate would be more or less in line with his career mark. And so this is largely the product of bad luck, which is borne out by his HR/FB ratio: it's at 21.1%, compared to his career mark of 9.1%.
Zambrano's inflated BAA (.317) is a function of that absurd .435 BABiP, which is 54.3% higher than his career mark of .282. Now I suppose it's possible that he's suddenly become eminently hittable. There are, after all, some disturbing trends in his numbers. Since posting a phenomenal 54.4% ground ball rate in his first full season in '03, Zambrano's GB% has declined every year but one (in 2008, when it rocketed to 47.2% from 46.8%), reaching the low-water mark (44.7%) last season. This year it's at 39.3%, and although it's still plenty low enough to succeed, combined with his increasing line drive rate -- at 26.8% this year, compared to 18.7% for his career -- there are some causes for concern.
But in looking at his strikeouts, it's clear that Zambrano's stuff is still plenty good enough to get major-league hitters out. Given the minuscule sample size -- and the inordinate effect one bad start has on overall numbers just a few games in -- it's infinitely more likely that he's merely the victim of some unfortunate early-season flukiness.
And now the Cubs' entire season has become a victim of it, too. Because reducing Zambrano's workload by 120-or-so innings undoubtedly makes the team worse. I am painfully aware of just how bad the bullpen has been, but how much impact can one player can have on a seven-man relief corps?
Besides, this is a horrifically bad allocation of resources. As best I can tell, no non-40-year-old-Panamian reliever has a deal that averages more than $12.5 million per season, and all the guys in that range are closers. Zambrano, owed the aforementioned $53.75 million over the next three years, basically makes one-and-a-half times that; he's paid the big bucks to log starter innings, and that's what the Cubs should have him doing.
If Zambrano were pitching atrociously, I'd applaud the Cubs for finally grasping the concept a sunk cost and moving him to the 'pen. But he's not. To this point, it's been three decent starts, one horrible one, and whole lot of bad luck. To demote one of your best pitchers based on that, whether it's because you're dissatisfied with him, the bullpen, or a combination thereof, flat-out doesn't make sense. And what happens if Zambrano, who hasn't pitched in relief in eight years, gets injured because his body doesn't handle the sudden transition well? This is just awful on so many levels.
You know, kind of like the Cubs.