Florida Marlins - Acquired P Carlos Zambrano and $15 million from the Chicago Cubs for P Chris Volstad
This is a deal that I understand from the Cubs point of view even if it is one I don’t think I would have made. The Cubs don’t figure to be very good (to put it mildly) in 2012 and the odds are against Zambrano making a substantial on-field contribution. He’d also likely become the focus of the fans discontent (assuming he was to pitch and be an expensive mediocrity) and there’s every reason to think that wouldn’t go down well.
So pay the Marlins to take him and pick up a young pitcher who’s been a disappointing sub-mediocrity in return. Volstad is not 25 yet and already has 102 major league starts split across 4 years. The thing is that reaching the majors young is nowhere near the indicator of future success among pitchers as it is among position players.
Of course you never know with pitchers. Maybe he can add a pitch. Maybe he has a mechanical flaw that can be corrected. The thing is that you can say that about any pitcher and there are plenty of other pitchers that have a better foundation than Volstad to build on. He’s been a (just over) replacement level nibbler (acceptable control and a strikeout rate that isn’t terrible) and there’s no particular reason to expect more. Volstad is arbitration eligible but I can’t imagine this concerns the Cubs this year. And if he happens to be in line for a hefty raise in 2013 that’s good news. It will mean he pitched unexpectedly well.
Zambrano on the other hand is a formerly good to excellent pitcher in steep decline. He’d be among the pitchers I see as having the widest range of possible outcomes even if healthy. ZiPS projects him for a 96 ERA+ with just over 7 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched, poor control and a likely injury. OK, I’ll buy that as the single most likely guess and if that’s what’s in store you can certainly see why the Cubs would have no hesitation (beyond writing that check to the Marlins) about moving him.
He’s overpaid for his most likely upside (an ERA+ in the 115-120 range, somewhere around 8 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched with more walks than you’d like) but that’s of no concern for the Marlins. There is a very expensive option for next year but it vests only if Zambrano is healthy (whatever that means. I’m sure it involves getting a medical sign-off) and finishes 4th or higher in the Cy Young voting. Given the way the Marlins have acted in this off-season I don’t think they’d be too disappointed if the option does vest. I’d be prepared to bet heavily against this of course, but you have a talented and very proud man who may well be very motivated. That’s been the basis of many a bounce-back season.
Of course the reason he’s on the move is the off field stuff. The Marlins are adding one more volatile personality to a very interesting mix. I’m reaching way back, but the situation this most reminds me of is John McGraw and Mike Donlin. Now I’m not saying that Zambrano is an angry drunk who beats up actresses. Donlin was actually more volatile than Zambrano. The point is that he was a very talented guy that McGraw thought was worth the bother of dealing with. And for the most part it worked out as well as he could have hoped. I don’t think Ozzie Guillen is all that worried about having to deal with Zambrano (or Logan Morrison or Hanley Ramirez) and I think he has a better shot than most managers of getting the best out of Zambrano. Or the absolute worst. Whatever—it rates to be interesting at minimum.
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