2009 Recap: Carlos Zambrano
Chances are you can't. This is a big reason why rewarding a 20-something starting pitcher with more than a hundred million dollars guaranteed is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you don't scenario.
And thus, at least a few of us expected Carlos Zambrano to have this kind of year. The amazing thing is that, despite nagging soreness issues, and despite his workout regime being questionable, he hasn't had to undergo major surgery. Maybe he won't have to. Probably it's only a matter of time. Still, Carlos has become a polarizing figure amongst Cub fans, and this year has not helped his cause at all.
After all -- Carlos Zambrano went on the DL for swinging a bat too hard during batting practice. Apparently this is something that ace pitchers do not do, although he was hardly the only Cub pitcher to get hurt doing something stupid. Ryan Dempster -- he of the 17-win 2008 season -- broke his toe jumping a fence. Where was the outrage?
In fact, the microscope Zambrano has been under might be just a bit unfair. Is he an ace? Hell yes. Has he pitched like one lately? No. The Moose only managed 9 wins in 2009, the worst of his career, resulting in threats of early retirement if he ever plays this badly again.
But think about it. His ERA was 3.77 -- the lowest it's been since 2006. He walked too many guys like usual, but he struck out 22 more batters in nearly 20 fewer innings from last year. His numbers weren't actually all that bad, the only problem is that the wins weren't there.
When you're an ace, the wins have to be there. When you're an ace, the ERA has to be lower than 3.77. When you're making 16 million a year, you need to pitch 200 innings. When you're the guy the team calls on to break a losing streak, you need to reliably dominate the opponents without suffering from brief mental breakdowns.
Except for one thing ... Zambrano could have had an ERA 1 run lower, he could have avoided missing a single start, he could have been the model of mental health, and with the Cubs offense as it was he would have struggled to win even 12 games in 2009. An ace is a lot of things, but he's not a miracle man.
So, what is in store for Carlos Zambrano in 2010? More breakdowns of both the physical and mental variety? Or will he step up and deliver a year like the kind we thought he'd have two or three seasons ago?
I'll only say this: whenever Rob has decried that Zambrano is not an ace because he isn't Maddux in the clubhouse and because he's nutty on the field, I've brought up a single name: Roger Clemens. From 1993 to 1996, Clemens went 40-41, he failed to reach 200 innings in a season all but once, and he essentially wrote his exit story from Boston. After that, he buckled down, got into impeccable shape (through chemical means, admittedly), and pitched himself to several Cy Youngs. In the process, Clemens stopped traveling with his team, he stopped going to work on days he didn't pitch, he threw a baseball bat at Mike Piazza in the World Series, and he was seen across the board as a total, undeniable prick.
So what's an ace? Is it Greg Maddux, the impeccable professional? Or is it Roger Clemens, the asshole with a golden cannon for an arm? I submit to you that it can be both, and the only thing Carlos Zambrano needs to do is toss 200 innings in 2010 and maintain his mechanics in order for even Rob to re-qualify him as an ace pitcher. Because if he does those two things -- regardless of whether or not he gets suspended, travels in a padded cell, or breaks through walls with his head -- then he will be a sub-3.00 pitcher with damn near 20 wins.
But whether or not that's likely to happen is a completely different story.