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The former Cubs and Marlins pitcher could be heading east. FAR east.
(And yes, I am well aware of the, um, alternate meaning of that phrase.)
This Paul Sullivan tweet from Tuesday got lost in the shuffle of training camp news:
Source says Big Z may sign in Japan or Taiwan if he can't get major league deal. #Cra-Z— Paul Sullivan (@PWSullivan) February 12, 2013
I'm writing this as a sort of valedictory to Big Z's career, since it doesn't seem likely any major-league club is going to offer him a chance, even on a minor-league deal. It seems hard to believe that someone who did that well over his first few years could be done at age 31.
When Z threw his no-hitter in Milwaukee against the Astros September 14, 2008, it seemed he might be headed for perennial All-Star status, maybe another no-no or two, a Cy Young Award and, if he could keep it up another five or six years, the "best pitcher in Cubs history" talk would begin.
Instead, Z got hit hard in his remaining two starts in 2008 and in the division series against the Dodgers (although, to be fair, the latter was largely the fault of his infield, who simply stopped fielding that night). He yanked himself out of one 2009 start as he was warming up, and missed three weeks. He wasn't the durable pitcher he had been prior to 2007; the purpose of this post isn't to rehash the ill-advised move to the bullpen in 2010, his histrionics and walkout on the team in 2011, or his truly mediocre year (and another bullpen demotion) in 2012 for the Marlins.
Rather, it's to lament another "what could have been." When I first saw Big Z pitch in a Cubs uniform, wearing No. 67, in spring training 2001, I thought he had "future closer" written all over him. In fact, if he had the right mindset for it, he might have been able to transition to that role after he began to getting hurt as a starting pitcher. That might have been the reason he started to decline -- injuries that either he or his teams, or both, refused to acknowledge. His K/9 inning ratio dropped from a high of 8.8 in 2006 to just 6.2 in 2011 and 6.5 last year, while his BB/9 increased from a career-best 3.4 in 2008 to 5.1 in his single year with the Marlins.
There's no doubt Zambrano had the talent to be a staff ace; there's also no doubt he didn't have the right temperament, or at least none that could be controlled by the managers he had in Chicago. Give Ozzie Guillen credit for one thing: you didn't hear of any Big Z Meltdowns in 2012. His mediocre Miami season played out in radio silence.
He was always entertaining, that's for sure; I know I wrote often that I felt enough was enough. He wasn't able to control his passion enough while in Chicago to be an effective pitcher. That's really a shame, because when he was on, he was really on. He was fun to watch as a hitter, too, with his 23 career home runs for the Cubs (most by a pitcher in team history), although the managers who used him as a pinch-hitter shouldn't have bothered (he was 3-for-29 lifetime, all singles, with 14 strikeouts).
I wish him well. I wish he could have controlled his behavior better; if he had, he might still be a Chicago Cub. Japan? I doubt NPB has ever seen anyone quite like Big Z; I'm not sure if the fans over there will know what to make of him. He's on the Venezuela roster for the World Baseball Classic (note: though Felix Hernandez is listed, it's been announced that he won't pitch); perhaps if he pitches well for his home country, some MLB team will take a chance on him.
Carlos Zambrano in Japan? It won't be dull, if indeed it happens.