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January 5, 2012
Sunk Costs and Changes of Scenery
Remember that article I wrote last week about how cagey GMs can be? (If not, that’s your cue to go read it.) Had I waited till this week, I might’ve had another example. On Wednesday afternoon, Theo Epstein went on WGN radio in Chicago to talk about, among other things, Carlos Zambrano. I found out about his appearance when I saw the resulting story on MLB.com, the first line of which read, “Theo Epstein said he expects the Cubs to re-sign Kerry Wood, start Bryan LaHair at first base in 2012 and give Carlos Zambrano one last chance with the team.” Here are his actual comments:
Zambrano evidently failed to prove that he could change between Wednesday afternoon and Wednesday evening, as Epstein shipped him off to Miami not long after making those remarks. Either Marlins GM Michael Hill heard the interview and thought, “Hey, that sounds like a guy who might give me Carlos Zambrano if I offered him $3 million and an arm,” or the trade was already nearing completion when Epstein went on the air. Regardless of the timing, Epstein did well with little leverage to find a taker for a player who had become a distraction while obtaining a potentially useful piece in return.
It’s much easier to jettison a player in pursuit of a winning culture when that player isn’t doing much to contribute to a winning record. Conveniently for Epstein—if not for the Cubs of the past couple seasons—Zambrano’s meltdowns on the field and in the dugout and clubhouse coincided with a decline on the mound. His transgressions were such that he might have been unpopular with the brass even had he continued pitching like he did in his prime, but teams have tolerated worse from more productive players. Once his bad behavior began to be accompanied by bad baseball—and surely the two were intertwined—the erstwhile ace’s days were numbered.
Zambrano spent time on the suspended list in each of the last two seasons. In 2010, the impetus was a blowup after a bad inning that earned him a six-week timeout and a trip to anger management (which, it seems safe to say, didn't take). Last season, he was tossed from a game in mid-August after allowing five home runs, then cleaned out his locker and left the team, never to return. When he wasn’t in self-imposed exile or on the DL with lower back soreness, he was pitching fairly poorly, with a career-low walk rate not quite counteracting a career-low strikeout rate and a career-high home run rate. In his prime, Zambrano demonstrated an ability to induce weak contact that translated into low BABIPs and HR/FB rates and allowed him to outpitch his peripherals, but he showed few indications that he still possessed that skill last season.
Shortly before pulling the trigger on the trade, Epstein reportedly said that eating bad contracts is a sign of a healthy organization. If so, the Cubs are in tip-top shape.* But while this deal was mostly about easing some financial strain and ridding the roster of a pitcher who didn’t play well with others, the Cubs came away from the trade with a usable player in addition to a harmonious clubhouse and a few more millions in Tom Ricketts’ pockets.
*Imagine how healthy they’d be if they ate Alfonso Soriano’s!
Over the past two seasons, Zambrano accrued 2.4 WARP, much of it due to his performance at the plate. Chris Volstad was worth 2.2. That doesn’t mean the two are equally talented; for one thing, Zambrano put together that total in about 65 fewer innings (albeit because he was so often unable or unwilling to pitch). Extend that selective starting point back to 2009, and the difference becomes even clearer. But even if Volstad isn’t the pitcher Zambrano was and perhaps could be again, he’s five years younger, under team control through 2014, and much less likely to punch someone in the face before then.
Volstad, a 6’8” groundballer with improving control, seems like he should be better than he’s been, but he’s handicapped by two glaring weaknesses: his fly balls leave the park too often, and he’s helpless against lefties, who’ve knocked him around to the tune of a .295 weighted, multi-year TAv. Even so, he’s not bad fourth- or fifth-starter material, and he doesn’t have any of the stats that typically lead to large sums in arbitration. In Volstad and Travis Wood, the Cubs now have a couple of young starters with potential you can dream on, a commodity they lacked at the back of the rotation last season.
Traded RHP Chris Volstad to the Cubs for RHP Carlos Zambrano. [1/4]
Ah, the sweet smell of a change-of-scenery trade. Zambrano’s history in Chicago may have made him a good buy-low candidate, which isn’t something that’s often said about a player making $18 million.* Whether you believe that Zambrano’s behavioral problems have made him undervalued depends on whether you think they’re likely to continue in his new surroundings. The righty has been too excitable for too long to believe that he’ll ever be above the occasional display of bad body language or busted beverage cooler, but if there’s any team on which he might be able to avoid another truly disastrous outburst, it might be the Marlins.
*Zambrano has an option for $19.25 million that would vest if he finishes the season healthy, in the top four in Cy Young voting, and presumably not suspended. Not only are all of those things extremely unlikely to happen, but if they do, the Marlins won’t mind being stuck with him. He does have a full no-trade clause, so he’s not going anywhere until 2013.
While it would seem like putting Zambrano and Ozzie Guillen in the same clubhouse would only add more fuel to the fire, this might paradoxically be the perfect pairing. The two Venezuelan natives are reportedly quite close, having worked together in commercials and charity ventures. Zambrano earned Lou Piniella's ire and broke the first baseball commandment* by having dinner with Guillen after the outburst that earned him his suspension in 2010, and Guillen mentioned at the Winter Meetings that that the two text daily.** Zambrano’s prior conflicts with managers may have had as much or more to do with Zambrano as they did with his skippers, but maybe his affection for Guillen will help him keep his temper under control and pitch to the best of his remaining ability. If he doesn’t, the Marlins won’t be out all that much cash, and he’ll be someone else’s problem next season.
*"I am Piniella thy manager, which have sometimes brought thee out of the bullpen, and thou shalt have no other managers before me, for I Piniella thy manager am a jealous manager."
**Anyone’s who’s seen what Ozzie can do with 140 characters on Twitter knows how highly Zambrano must think of the skipper to subject himself to up to 160 characters of the same on a daily basis.
Zambrano will slide into the middle of what should be a very strong rotation, which will also feature Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Anibal Sanchez, and Ricky Nolasco. Even on the wrong side of 30 and with a lot of mileage on his arm, Zambrano gives the Marlins a better chance to win now than they would have had with Volstad. That—and his affordable $3 million price tag, with Chicago footing $15 million of the bill—is all that matters for a team with a new stadium and a bevy of high-priced free agents in place, and a financial future that hinges on a strong showing in what should prove to be the NL’s strongest division.
Whether Zambrano proves to be a success or merely a much smaller sunk cost than he is for the Cubs, the Marlins will be nothing if not entertaining this season. The only question is whether most of the entertainment will originate on or off the field. With Zambrano and Guillen attempting to keep their cool, Logan Morrison letting loose on Twitter, Hanley Ramirez’s pride smarting from his move to third base, whatever this is in the outfield, and the usual controversies involving David Samson and Jeffrey Loria, Jose Reyes and Mike Stanton will be hard-pressed to hit enough triples and home runs, respectively, to overshadow the interplay of the team’s outsized egos.
Maybe all of these players with personality problems in their past will mesh perfectly and produce a Cinderella season. I hope so, for the sake of baseball’s future in Florida. It seems more likely that there will be some degree of dysfunction, but that needn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Plenty of teams have succeeded with a collection of players who could have been characterized as colorful on their best days and combative on the others. If the Marlins lose, their detractors will say the cause of death was clubhouse cancer. If they win, they’ll be the lovable bunch of misfits who matured as a unit, or at least refused to let their differences affect their play on the field. Fortunately, given the stat lines attached to those egos, there’s every reason to expect them to win more often than not.