It seemed so at the conclusion of 2010. Big Z went 8-0 with a 1.41 ERA upon being reinserted in the rotation. But the first half of 2011 has again been rocky, as Zambrano has interspersed moments of brilliance with stretches of mediocrity and finds himself with a truly pedestrian line as we approach midseason (5-4, 96 IP, 4.59 ERA, 1.34 WHIP).
Of the Cubs “big three” from ‘03, Zambrano is the only pitcher who hasn’t made a pitstop in the Bronx. That may be about to change. ESPN Chicago reported today (smack in the middle of the Yankees visit to Wrigley, coincidentally) that Zambrano was prepared to waive his no-trade clause if the Cubs moved him to a contender before the deadline. Few contenders are more desperate for pitching than the Yankees, whose already tenuous rotation was further shortened by the recent loss of Bartolo Colon. Is the risk of signing Zambrano worth the potential reward?
Let’s start with the fact that Zambrano, unlike some other starters who will be available at the deadline, is unlikely to cost the Yankees any of their premier prospects. His exodus may be mutually beneficial to the extent the Cubs might even be willing to eat a little of his remaining contract. That contract, though clearly a mistake in retrospect, is not exactly an albatross, even if the Yankees have to take it on in its entirety. It runs only through next season. There is a sizable ($19.25 Mil.) vesting option for 2013, but it only goes into effect if Zambrano finishes in the top four in the Cy Young voting in 2012, in which case, I’m guessing the Yankees would be more than happy with the investment.
The case for Zambrano in the Bronx probably goes something like this. Joe Girardi knows him well. During much of Z’s rookie season, Girardi was his personal catcher, guiding him to a 2.56 ERA in 13 games. Moreover, Larry Rothschild, the New York pitching coach, served the Cubs in that position for the first eight years of Zambrano’s MLB career and, by all accounts, had an outstanding relationship with Big Z.
Zambrano is a pitcher who thrives on adrenaline, as such he has generally risen to the occasion when the Cubs have been involved in pennant races. In ‘03, he went 7-3 with a 2.51 ERA after the All-Star Break. In ‘07, despite an uneven season on the whole, when the Cubs needed him most, he excelled, going 4-1 with a 1.67 ERA in his last five starts. And in ‘08, he more or less clinched the division with a complete-game shutout of the Astros that put the Cubs up 8 with 14 to go. On his career, Zambrano’s ERA, WHIP, K/9, and W% are all substantively better after the All-Star Break.
Zambrano is also, an innings-eating workhorse. Even in his worst starts, he tends to hang around long enough to alleviate the ill effects on the bullpen (he’s gone at least five innings in every start this year), and has shown himself well capable of throwing 120+ pitches at a time. In his ten seasons, he’s made only one trip to the DL, and even that was for a minimal amount of time. Durability is no small virtue.
And, finally, at his best, Zambrano’s “stuff” is as good as just about anybody in baseball. At only 30, it seems unlikely that he would unable to harness it and dominate again, as he did at the end of last season, at least for a few prolonged stretches over the next season and a half.
On the other hand, Zambrano is an undeniable head case. As recently as two weeks ago he made some derogatory comments about his teammates, particularly lambasting Cubs closer, Carlos Marmol, who, to be fair, is probably the only player on the Cubs roster who is above criticism. Earlier in the season, he had to be told to stop breaking his bat over his knee when he struck out.
Speaking of which, Z loves to hit. He loves it so much, he might be reluctant to go to an AL team which would rob him of the opportunity. In general, the AL has not be particularly kind to him on the mound either. His career record in interleague play is 8-8 with a 4.82 ERA, and he has struggled mightily against the AL East (though in extremely small samples): Red Sox (5.91 ERA, 2 GS), Rays (5.40, 1 GS), Orioles (13.50 ERA, 1 GS).
Would Zambrano’s temperamental defects be subverted by the Yankees veteran clubhouse and the familiar face of Girardi? Is he capable of being a second-half Ace given a change of scenery, much like Roy Oswalt was for the Phillies last year? Is there much downside at this point to having a guy who’s pretty much a lock for at least 180+ league-average innings, even if he comes with a steep short-term pricetag?
UPDATE: Wallace Matthews of ESPN New York reports an unnamed source within the Yankees organization saying they have no serious interest in Zambrano. Make of it what you will. I will simply point out that these anonymous declarations are frequently followed by contrary actions.