Thursday, January 5, 2012
Chemistry experiment: Marlins get Big Z
By David Schoenfield
When it comes to Carlos Zambrano, is the Marlins' biggest concern his attitude or declining velocity?
Well, if you're a believer in the importance of clubhouse chemistry, the potential powder keg that could be the Miami Marlins will be an entertaining exercise. We have Hanley Ramirez, unhappy about his move to third base; we have Twitter master Logan Morrison and a front office that tried to put the clamps on him; we have never tongue-tied Ozzie Guillen running the ship; and now the Marlins have added Carlos Zambrano to the mix, acquiring him from the Cubs for Chris Volstad.
The problem with analyzing clubhouse chemistry is that's usually done ex post facto. If a team loses, bad clubhouse karma can be blamed (see the 2011 Red Sox). If a team wins, it's never an issue (see the 2004 Red Sox). The only concern with Zambrano is that his controversial exit from the Cubs last summer makes it an issue before the season begins.
That said, his personality won't be a reason the Marlins win or don't win. Certainly, it wasn't a problem when the Cubs won division titles in 2003, 2007 and 2008 with Zambrano in the rotation. And Zambrano's outbursts were hardly the only reason the Cubs lost 91 games last year. So the only question that should matter: Does he have anything left?
Let's forget the notion that Zambrano will ever return to his peak form: From 2003 to 2006, he compiled a 3.14 ERA while averaging over 200 innings and 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings. He was primarily a fastball/slider guy, and while he was a bit wild, he was tough to hit and generated a lot of groundballs. Those workhorse days appear over, however. He hasn't pitched 200 innings since 2007 and his average fastball velocity has dipped from 92-93 mph to 90.2 mph in 2011. He's tried to counteract the loss in firepower by throwing more cut fastballs, but his groundball rate -- once as high as 55 percent -- fell to 42.4 percent in 2011. That led to a career-worst home run rate (he allowed 19 in 145.2 innings) and also a career-low strikeout rate of 6.2 per nine.
Zambrano is still young enough (he'll turn 31 in June) that maybe he's just going through a transitional phase from power pitcher to finesse pitcher. My fear is that he threw too many innings and too many pitches in his early 20s and that what we saw of Big Z in 2011 is what we'll see in 2012.
That doesn't make it a bad risk for the Marlins. Volstad has now spent three-plus seasons in the rotation and just hasn't become the effective major league starter many scouts projected. He allows a lot of hits, doesn't strike out enough batters, hasn't pitched deep into games and for a guy whose best pitch is supposed to be a hard sinking fastball, he gives up too many home runs. There are some things to like here: He's just 25, throws strikes, has been injury-free and he's still 6-foot-8.
He's certainly a worthy gamble for the Cubs. Maybe a change of scenery and new pitching coach will help him get over the hump from fringe major leaguer to No. 3 or 4 starter. And at the least, he's unlikely to beat up his catcher.