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Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Thinking about Big Z

CHICAGO -- Did Carlos Zambrano just pitch his last game for the Chicago Cubs?

I couldn't help but wonder that as I walked out of Wrigley Field on Wednesday night.

After looking so dominant last week in a complete-game shutout victory over the Giants, Zambrano looked completely mediocre against the hapless Pirates, giving up four runs over six innings and earning the loss.

I've said this a few times this season, but it's worth repeating again: In many ways, Zambrano's struggles mirror those of the Cubs. The expectations (and money invested in him) were huge, and he has failed to come close to becoming the consistent No. 1 ace the team is lacking. He's been on the DL twice this season and has admitted that he was "lazy" at times when it came to conditioning.

"Obviously, this was a new experience for me," Zambrano said after his latest subpar outing, trying to sum up how he'll finish the season with just nine wins. "[I need to] just put this year behind me and think about next year."

But the Cubs would be foolish to simply forget about this year when it comes to evaluating the big right-hander. What makes them think he's suddenly going to become serious about his offseason workout program? Sure, he says he's going to start his training much earlier this winter, but why wouldn't he have done that once he signed his multimillion-dollar contract?

When I asked him whether he had considered whether he had just played his last game for Chicago, his response was short and quick. "No comment. Next question."

The Cubs are hoping Zambrano's lackluster year will motivate him to come back stronger in 2010. There's no question that Big Z is a prideful man and that he can't stand the way he has performed this season, but the team would be wise to look into all possible trade options in the next few months. The only thing the 28-year-old has proved continually up to this point in his career is that he can't be counted on to lead a staff year after year. For the amount of money the Cubs are paying him, that is unacceptable.

If he's willing to waive his no-trade clause, they have to think long and hard about sending him to another team and spending all that extra money to fill the other holes on the roster.

"Look, everybody expects more out of him," manager Lou Piniella said after the game. "Including himself. So let's chalk this up to a season where he wasn't at his best. He's talked about working hard and having a big season next year, so let's just look ahead not behind."

The question is: Are the Cubs better off next season leaving Zambrano behind?