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The Top 100 Cubs Of All Time - #43 Carlos Zambrano

Carlos Zambrano of the Chicago Cubs bats during a game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Carlos Zambrano of the Chicago Cubs bats during a game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
This is an update to the Carlos Zambrano story in the Top 100 Cubs series that I wrote on December 22, 2006. Z was 59th in the original ranking, done after the 2006 season; his seasons since then, even with some of his troubles, move him up to 43rd. (In career WAR as a Cub, Z ranks 32nd.) Most of this is the original post; the additional material is at the end of the post, with a bit of editing throughout to bring dates, etc. up to date. This is the second of four profile updates; Kerry Wood's was updated on January 23, and the profiles of the other two active players on the list -- Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee -- will also be updated before spring training begins. The original comments are still here; you can add to them now.

Well he went down to dinner in his Sunday best
Excitable boy, they all said
And he rubbed the pot roast all over his chest
Excitable boy, they all said
Well he's just an excitable boy...
-- Warren Zevon, "Excitable Boy"

Rubbing pot roast on his chest is about the only thing the very, very excitable Carlos Zambrano hasn't done on the pitcher's mound.

I'm exaggerating here, of course. Z's excitable nature, his histrionics on the mound, his clear passion for playing baseball, are all things that make him the exciting player to watch, the guy we all love, the pitcher who's already, at age 25, a dominant force in the major leagues.

Carlos was born June 1, 1981 in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. Look at that birth date and realize that there are players born on or around that time who are still toiling away in the minor leagues, having not made any impact in major league baseball, or perhaps not even having played a single game in the majors. In 2006, I wrote this:

For an excellent example of this, you need go no further than the Cubs' own 40-man roster, where you will find the name of Clay Rapada, recently added; many people, including many of you, think Rapada has talent (and I'd agree), and might someday become a good major league reliever.

Rapada was born March 9, 1981 -- he is three months older than Z, and has never thrown a major league pitch. (That was true when I wrote it on December 22, 2006; who'd have guessed, then, that Rapada would wind up in the playoffs, four years later, for the Texas Rangers?)

In fact, when Z made his major league debut, starting the second game of a doubleheader against the Brewers on August 20, 2001, he was the first player in the major leagues to have been born in the 1980's; he was only a couple of months past his 20th birthday. That debut was, as was Kerry Wood's, less than auspicious; he gave up four hits and four walks in four innings, including a three-run homer to Kevin Brown (this Kevin Brown, not the pitcher), and Don Baylor mercifully pulled him after he allowed a single, walk, stolen base and wild pitch to start the fifth inning.

I had seen Z throw in spring training that year and had some spirited debates on the old Cubs Usenet newsgroup (which some of you might remember) about whether Z might be better suited to relief pitching. In fact, had he taken that track, he might well have become an elite closer. He certainly has the stuff and the mound presence and the right approach to be one.

But I think we're all glad that he didn't, and that he was quickly able to harness his considerable talent as a starting pitcher. By the middle of the 2002 season, a lost year for the Cubs, Z was in the starting rotation to stay, and gained confidence as the season went on, finishing with only a 4-8 record, but a respectable 3.66 ERA.

Z, along with the rest of the Cubs, burst onto the national scene in 2003; at age 22 he went 13-11 for the Central Division champions, with 168 strikeouts and a 3.11 ERA. His hitting prowess began to get noticed as well; on July 25, his two-run homer in Houston off his future teammate Wade Miller tied up a game that the Cubs eventually won 5-3. During the postseason, we began to see some of the emotions that Z has become noted for; in game five of the NLCS, the Cubs' first shot at winning that series, Z seemed overwrought and had to be yanked after struggling through five innings, though it's doubtful anyone could have matched Josh Beckett's two-hitter that day.

Between 2004 and 2006 Z established himself as one of the top starting pitchers in the major leagues, winning sixteen, fourteen and sixteen games, and being durable as well (throwing 209, 223 and 214 innings), although he has chronic back problems that require careful monitoring, and during the 2005 season he briefly had a minor elbow problem supposedly caused by too much time spent on the computer emailing his brother in Venezuela. We can laugh at this now because it turned out to be nothing serious.

Z has continued contributing with his bat, too; his six home runs in 2006 tied the club record for home runs by a pitcher (Ferguson Jenkins, 1971), and is the second-most hit by any pitcher in a season since 1955 (Earl Wilson, Mike Hampton and Don Drysdale all hit seven in a season). Through the 2010 season he has 21 home runs, the most of any active pitcher and 11th on the all-time pitcher HR list. It's said he loves hitting so much, that's one of the reasons he'd never approve a trade to an American League team.

In 2007, Z set a career high with 18 wins, but was the subject of some controversy not of his own making when Lou Piniella pulled him out of Game One of the Division Series with the Diamondbacks, supposedly "saving" him for a Game Four which was never played. He finished fifth in Cy Young voting that year.

In 2008, Big Z reached the pinnacle of his career to date with the first Cubs no-hitter in 36 years; it came under unusual circumstances, when Hurricane Ike forced two Cubs/Astros games in Houston to be rescheduled to Milwaukee's Miller Park. On less than 24 hours notice, more than 23,000 people, mostly Cubs fans, bought tickets for the game on Sunday night, September 14, 2008, and cheered Z as he no-hit the Astros 5-0, allowing just two baserunners (on a walk and a HBP) and striking out 10.

The next two seasons were controversy and injury filled. Z missed starts in both 2009 and 2010 with various maladies; at one point he admitted that his back problems were from not being in shape, and he vowed to get in better shape for 2010, spending a lot of the 2009-10 winter in Chicago working out. Then, the 2010 season didn't "work out" at all for him; in a much-debated (and, after the fact, admittedly wrongheaded) decision, he was taken out of the rotation in late April and placed in the bullpen, something he said he'd do for the good of the team, but you could tell he wasn't into it. Returned to the rotation in June, he had a memorable meltdown and confrontation with teammates and coaches in the dugout on June 25 at the Cell; put on the restricted list, he was ordered to get anger management counseling.

Z returned to the rotation a determined and changed man. Visibly focused on his pitching, he had a fantastic two months, going 8-0 with a 1.41 ERA, a 1.19 WHIP, and only one HR allowed in 70.1 innings. This gave a lot of hope for the 2011 season and beyond, that Big Z could, at last, become the dominant "ace" many Cubs fans had hoped he'd become.

What I wrote to conclude this profile in 2006 is still true:

I think all of us love the passion Z brings to the mound every start, not to mention his considerable talent. If he can channel that emotion into his pitching and not let it get the best of him, there's no telling the greatness to which he can ascend.

Admittedly, at times I have called for him to be traded after yet another one of his outbursts. His play the last two months suggests that, at last, he finally has that under control. Let's hope so. Big Z enters the 2011 season with 1441 strikeouts, second (behind Fergie Jenkins) on the Cub all-time list, and with 116 career wins, 16th on the list -- a 17-win season would tie him with Greg Maddux, who ranks 13th; that would also likely bring him All-Star recognition (he's had three ASG appearances to date) and maybe some Cy Young votes, and the hope from all Cubs fans that he could become one of the greatest pitchers in team history.

Carlos Zambrano's career stats at