Meet Carlos Zambrano-Highest Paid Middle Reliever in Baseball History
Some things in our great game never cease to amaze me. First and foremost of these things is watching a team re-live a contractual mistake over and over again. That’s exactly what the Cubs have done while watching (and paying for) the wild ride that is Carlos Zambrano. It’s like some bizarre version of GROUNDHOG DAY set in Wrigley Field, every morning you wake up hoping for change and all you ever get is the same damn thing, slightly re-dressed, but nauseatingly familiar.
But unlike Billy Murray, Cub fans can’t expect change with this man (or Andie McDowell in their bed in the morning).
If you haven’t heard, the Mighty “BIG Z” (the “Z” may stand more for ZERO than ZAMBRANO from this point on) and his 7.45 ERA and 1.86 WHIP has been removed from the Cubs starting rotation and banished to Wrigley’s ivy-covered bullpen (where they will fit in very nicely as the rest of the Cubbie relief core is a miserable 1-6 on the year with a 6.15 ERA and 4 blown saves in 7 opportunities).
All of this happens in the middle of Zambrano’s five year, $91.5 million dollar contract ($18.3 million annually) that now makes him the highest paid middle reliever (of underachieving starter, whichever you choose) in MLB history. The deal includes an option that could make Zambrano’s deal worth over $110 million by the end of the contract.
Now here is the part that actually amazes me. I saw this coming. I was able to see Zambrano for the non-professional punk he is. I know others who saw this to. They were sitting with me when it happened. Many of them Cubs fans. Many who moaned and groaned his signing just as they did with Milton Bradley a year ago. I also know others who didn’t see it coming. They thought Zambrano and his contract are great and justified. They would be wrong. Apparently the Cubs upper brass and check writers fall into the latter.
Let me point out the obvious. This is not a talent thing. Zambrano is dripping with talent. Every time he takes the hill, talent wise, he’s in elite company. And at the plate he’s arguably the best hitting pitcher of the last two decades.
But talent is not enough. It never is and never will be. This is where stats fail to give us the complete picture of any given player. The numbers can’t give you what’s going on in the head and the heart of the man being statistically quantified.
Zambrano’s head and heart are huge (read: HUGE) question marks. This is a man who has thrown more than one childish tantrum over the course of his big league career. In the dugout he’s picked fights with teammates and beaten Gatorade coolers with great fervor. On the mound he’s dominant one minute and the next he’s holding a grenade in one hand and the pin in the other. When things are going well, he’s a hard worker. When things aren’t going his way, he tends to be lazy. Without question these “problems” with his head and heart out weigh any positives he brings to the game.
But I digress. I’m not here to analyze Zambrano. I’m here to point out what I and others saw coming and so many others missed. I saw what kind of “man” Zambrano was, and it spoke volumes about him. It happened in 2004.
It was a game in May, I don’t remember the date, but I remember the events as if it happened just moments ago. In the first inning of a game against the Cubs dreaded rival Cardinals, Zambrano plugged then Cardinal stud Jim Edmonds in his first at bat. The umpires warned both teams and play continued. In the fourth inning Edmonds came up again, this time taking Zambrano deep. Edmonds, after being hit by that pitch in the first, took a little time to admire the shot before going into his trot. Big Bad Z glared at Edmonds as he rounded the bases and yelled something at him as he touched home plate.In the sixth Edmonds was up again, and Zambrano struck him out on three pitches to end the inning. He pounded his chest and wagged a finger at Edmonds as he came off the mound. With the score tied at 3 in the eighth Cardinal third sacker Scott Rolen took Zambrano out-of-the-yard with a two-run jack to put the Cardinals up 5-3.
Next man up- Jim Edmonds.
The next pitch Zambrano threw plugged Edmonds in the ribs.
Now, I have no problem with Zambrano hitting Edmonds. Its what he did after that defines him. What he did told me right then and there that Carlos Zambrano would never be a winner at this or any other game. What he did should have been the first sign that re-signing him to any contract, let alone one potentially worth $100 million dollars or more, would be a HUGE mistake.
Carlos Zambrano plugged Jim Edmonds…..and ran away.
Yes. Ran away. He hopped off the mound and jogged into the Cubs dugout just as the home plate umpire was ejecting him, just as the Cardinals started to spill out of the dugout to confront the hurler. Just as Edmonds started toward the mound.
He ran away. Like a little boy trying to hide from a father who was going to spank him.
I can’t use the word I blurted out as I watched this “man” run off the field. It starts with a “P” and it ain’t “purple”.
If Zambrano had any guts (or nuts) he would have dropped his glove and told Edmonds to “come on”. He would have acted like a man who was responsible for his actions, not a goon or punk who starts a fight and then runs under the safety blanket that was the umpire’s ejection.
A winner doesn’t run. A man worthy of a $100 million dollar contract doesn’t pee his pants when responsibility steps up to stare him down. He stands pat and gives as good as he gets regardless of outcome. Regardless of fear.
The Cub fans watching the game with me were split. Some agreed with me that he was….well…”purple”, while others made excuses for him by saying “he just didn’t want to kick Edmonds ass” and “he’s protecting his arm”.
Sure. Whatever helps you sleep at night.
Regardless, Carlos Zambrano ran away from his responsibility not only as a player, but as a man. And he’s been running ever since. Sure, there are signs of that occasional brilliance where his immense talent out weighs his weak heart and cloudy head, but they are showing up in smaller and fewer intervals.
So now Carlos Zambrano is nothing more than a really well paid late-inning guy. My guess is by the end of May (because of an injury or whatever) he will be back in the starting rotation. The Cubs probably won’t have a choice in the matter. He’s getting paid like a number one starter better use him as a number one starter.
But he will never be a winner. He’ll collect his paycheck but he will have never earned it. He had a chance to earn every dime of it in 2004 against the Cardinals by standing on the mound like a man and he showed he wasn’t worth a wooden nickel.
The Cubs may never admit it, but right now, they wish they had looked at little deeper at Zambrano and saw what I saw in that game against St. Louis in 2004.
Had they looked deeper you can bet they would have run away from Big Z.