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Monday, June 28, 2010
Defending Big Z's big contract

Gee, $91.5 million does seem like a lot of money for a pitcher who has three wins and has been suspended indefinitely. Ah, but at least someone will defend Carlos Zambrano's contract:

Zambrano signed his extension on the August 17, 2007. At that moment, he was 14-9 with a 3.86 ERA (and in the midst of a five-game losing streak). For the sake of simplicity, let's sort of assume he didn't sign the new deal until after the season. Had Zambrano really pitched "as well as anybody" over those previous three or four seasons?

Carlos Zambrano
Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano was lifted from Friday's game after a first-inning dugout tirade.
Well, no. But he wasn't far off. Considering only National League starters who averaged at least 200 innings per season, from 2005 through 2007 Zambrano ranked fourth in ERA+; from 2004 through 2007 he was third. Zambrano pretty obviously wasn't pitching as well as Brandon Webb or Roy Oswalt, but otherwise -- considering his youth and his demonstrated durability -- you might reasonably have argued that Zambrano was the third-best starter in the National League over those three or four years. No question, he was immense valuable.

Here's Aaron Gleeman reacting to Hendry's defense:

Here's where I part ways with Hendry and Gleeman. It's almost undoubtedly true that Zambrano would have gotten more money if he'd become a free agent and signed with another team. It's also true that the Cubs, having employed Zambrano for a whole decade, should have known him better than anyone else.

Here's what I wrote about the deal at the time (admittedly, it wasn't much):

Yeah, that was a cheap shot there at the end. I could have mentioned that Zambrano's underlying statistics generally hadn't been as good as his ERA; his strikeout-to-walk ratios, in particular. I could have mentioned Zambrano's volatile personality, except I don't really believe that I'm qualified to pass judgment on such things, particularly if they don't seem to adversely affect a player's performance.

Hendry is another story. Hendry should have noticed that Zambrano's underlying performance probably wouldn't support those low ERAs, and Hendry should have known that Zambrano's personality might become an issue at some point.

Yeah, that's a cheap shot. I thought (and think) the Cubs overpaid for Zambrano. But if he wasn't worth $91.5 million, he must have been worth $81.5 million, right? Or $71.5 million? I guess all I'm trying to say is this: When we're setting down everything in the big ledger, we ultimately have to decide if the move worked or didn't work. Yes, second-guessing can be terribly unfairbut isn't it fair to assume Hendry had information about Zambrano that we didn't have? And that such information might have been enough to convince some general managers to spend their $91.5 million otherwise?

Hendry's got a tough job. But I'm not inclined to just give him a free pass on this one.