Commentary

For starters, Big Z's move puzzling

What happens if Zambrano, the reliever, is just as ineffective as Zambrano the starter?

Updated: April 22, 2010, 4:08 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

Someday, really, we're all going to laugh at this.

Carlos Zambrano will chuckle as he tells his grandchildren about the time the Cubs paid him nearly $18 million to be a setup guy.

Something far dumber will occur to make Cubs' fans realize that getting all hot and bothered about their Opening Day starter being taken out of the rotation two-and-a-half weeks into the season was just plain silly.

And the rest of us? Well, we'll just laugh for no better reason than these kinds of things seem to happen only to the Cubs.

Just as one of their top pitchers -- can we officially stop calling him their ace now? -- looked to be rounding into form, the Cubs decide that he is the most expendable starter when Ted Lilly returns to the rotation.

Zambrano was apparently a good sport Wednesday when initially given the news, according to Cubs manager Lou Piniella, who said the two talked about maturing, sort of the way you might talk to a fifth-grader and not a guy making more money per inning than most of us make in our lifetimes.

Zambrano also said mostly the right things about helping the team when asked by reporters. But just so there was no misunderstanding, he also made clear, "I don't like to be a reliever. I don't want to be a reliever..."

[+] EnlargeCarlos Zambrano
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesCarlos Zambrano got off to a nightmarish start on Opening Day against the Braves, recording just four outs.

And frankly, if the club thinks so highly of him, then reducing his innings -- not to mention his at-bats -- this drastically doesn't seem to make a lot of sense.

So, yes, Piniella's dramatic move -- no doubt a decision endorsed by the Cubs' brain trust -- smacks of desperation so early in the season. What if it blows up, along with Zambrano? Then what? Do you get the same Zambrano back?

But taken at face value -- and not factoring in Zambrano's salary or the fact that Wednesday's move is not likely to aid in the pitcher's latest temperament makeover -- desperate can just as easily be viewed as gutsy.

The Cubs identified their biggest problem as their bullpen -- and that could not have been easy in itself -- and they plugged a hole.

"We're trying to stabilize things and win baseball games," Piniella said. "The guy we focused on was Zambrano because of his stuff, his experience and his durability. I think it's a nice move for the immediate future."

Statistics show that Zambrano may thrive in the setup role. While his ERA is 7.45, and he already has allowed four home runs in 19 1/3 innings after giving up 10 all of last season, he is also striking out batters at a higher rate this year (12.1 per nine innings for third-highest in the big leagues).

And if the Cubs use him in a situational role, right-handed batters are hitting just .214 (9-of-42) off him, which is ninth-best among National League pitchers who have faced a minimum of 50 right-handed hitters.

While Zambrano often appears to get more comfortable as the game progresses, he might learn to channel the emotion more effectively in short bursts.

The last time he pitched in relief was in 2002, when he made 16 appearances out of the bullpen, going 0-0 with an ERA of 3.52 in 15 1/3 innings. He was also 21 years old at the time and began the season in Triple-A Iowa.

Unfortunately, it's hard to view this current situation at face value and not the complicated potential mess that it is.

If Zambrano thinks the bullpen is temporary and is awaiting that tap on his shoulder welcoming him back to the starting rotation, that could make for a very anxious and possibly cranky pitcher.

Cynics will suggest that maybe this will cause Zambrano to rethink his no-trade clause. Then again, Wednesday's move could not have done much for his trade value.

And while we're at it, it also killed his fantasy value.

As for Piniella, this is not likely to endear him to his growing legion of critics. But clearly, this is not foremost on his mind.

"This makes all the sense in the world," he said, at peace with his decision.

Maybe someday, he'll even be able to laugh at it.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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