Commentary

Nice knowing you, Carlos

His colorful nature aside, Zambrano's performance, attitude made him expendable

Updated: January 5, 2012, 8:01 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- There isn't much left to say about Carlos Zambrano, except goodbye and we'll miss you.

Oh, you won't miss Zambrano?

I will.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Zambrano
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireHe may have won 125 games in 11 seasons with the Cubs, knew how to spin a quote and had no lack for the dramatic, but Carlos Zambrano wore out his welcome the last couple of years.
He won 125 games in 11 seasons with the Cubs, pitched a no-hitter and threw in four different playoff series. His 3.60 career ERA was good. His 23 career home runs were fun.

When he was good, he was great. And when he wasn't, at least he was colorful. We don't have enough colorful. I think Randy Wells is going to have to talk more.

And he could talk too. Who else would quote '80s movies in postgame chats?

It was Zambrano who issued the simple, almost poetic description of the Cubs last season: "We stinks."

I know, I know. Who cares about funny quotes and busted Gatorade coolers. Zambrano was a pain in the neck -- and several other body parts -- and he is now, officially, finally, part of the past.

The future is Starlin Castro and Theo Epstein and the "foundation for sustained success" -- the words that have replaced "wait till next year" as the team's unofficial mantra.

Zambrano is gone and the team would love to ship Alfonso Soriano and a nice share of the $50 million-something he's owed out of town. Matt Garza, Jim Hendry's final impulse buy, is on the block, as well; he can return actual value.

There is no sense being sentimental about Zambrano. He wore out his welcome the last couple of years, neatly coinciding with the Cubs' devolvement from a playoff team into unlovable, soul-killing losers.

We think about him now as a pariah, but there was a time when Zambrano was the truth -- a homegrown All-Star who came out from under the shadow of his more touted teammates, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. When Hendry rewarded Zambrano with his big contract, it looked like a fair deal for a pitcher who would go down as one of the greats in the tortured history of the franchise.

I had little problem with him breaking bats over his knee and occasionally flying off the handle. That Gatorade machine -- yes, like a pop machine -- might as well have been painted with a bull's-eye.

But in the end the Cubs had no choice but to give him away. And there was no other reasonable suitor for his final year under contract than the Miami Marlins and Ozzie Guillen.

Zambrano to the Marlins is reportedly a done deal, though it had been common sense since Guillen signed with Miami in September.

While Epstein did a good job pretending Zambrano could come back, Tom Ricketts signed off on his departure last season after a secretly fired Hendry suspended him in August for leaving the team in Atlanta.

It was an ugly end, and blame was shared by Zambrano and the Hendry regime, which yearned for nothing but that elusive World Series during Zambrano's formative years.

Zambrano's new manager, Guillen, understands him, which made this deal possible in the first place. Zambrano had no-trade rights, which gave him the upper hand ... and which is partially why the Cubs gave him away for a middling, 6-foot-8 rotation filler in pitcher Chris Volstad.

ESPN Chicago's Bruce Levine is reporting the Cubs will pay the Marlins $15 million of the $18 million owed to Zambrano in 2012.

After Zambrano's mock retirement and subsequent banning last summer, Guillen smartly told a few of us one day that when players like Zambrano act out it's the fault of the organization for not setting the right ground rules. After all, Zambrano was barely slapped on the wrist when he beat up his catcher, Michael Barrett.

Now I don't think Zambrano under Guillen's watch will turn into the New Z, the fictional alter ego we've joked about for years, but I guarantee Zambrano will respect his countryman's rules. And if he erupts, Guillen will deal with it. You can call Guillen nuts, but inmates never ran his asylum.

I'm going to have a nice laugh when the Marlins win another World Series before the Cubs.

The coddling of Zambrano at a young age was an obvious problem on the North Side, going back to the days of Sammy Sosa. It was a cute game of cat and mouse for a while, but just as with Sosa, when Zambrano's performance waned, his privileges were revoked.

Zambrano wasn't a nut job off the field. He was charitable and one of the rare athletes who chose to embrace the non-millionaires in the city. He was old school that way, playing church league softball and everything. I liked that side of him. I also loved how funny he could be, like the time he told a casually dressed reporter he looked like he slept under a bridge.

But when it comes down to what we really care about, it was Zambrano's declining performance, and erratic attitude, that alienated him from his adopted town. It's funny, though, that when you look at his numbers during the past three years, they weren't bad at all. He had a nice ending to 2010 and his ERA never touched 4.00 until last year, when he finished at 4.82. That's not a number that gives you much rope.

I thought his demotion to the bullpen in early 2010 was unfair, and the tongue-clucking over his dugout tantrum was overblown. But there was a lot we didn't see from the outside.

Epstein and Jed Hoyer reversed course from Hendry and Ricketts' promises of exile and acted as though Zambrano could return in 2012. That was obviously a ploy to make him more palatable. No one bought it and there was no market for a pitcher with little remaining value. At least they got a usable pitcher in return.

The question up now: Will Soriano go next? After all, the precedent has been set that the Cubs are willing to eat contracts to start anew. It can't be a straight giveaway, though, given the money owed Soriano.

One thing is for sure. Hendry's and Andy MacPhail's Cubs are all but dead. Some say good riddance. I say it was nice knowing them.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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