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A look back at Carlos Zambrano as a pitching prospect

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How was Big Z viewed as an up-and-coming minor leaguer?

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Today’s article was borne out of the fact that Alexander Ovalles was traded to the Texas Rangers as the Player To Be Named Later for Cole Hamels.

And it eventually led to a look back at Carlos Zambrano’s career as a minor league player.

As timing had it, the Rangers and Cubs played twice in a row in the Dominican League on Monday and Tuesday last week. Ovalles, who is recovering from a broken hamate bone, had the opportunity to (one would imagine) visit the Rangers facility on one day or both of the two-day stretch. As he apparently was on the list of players the Rangers were interested in, they had time to check on him.

Ovalles had played quite well for the Dominican League Cubs, until his injury in late June. The Rangers have two very good Dominican League teams. As such, if they want him, he’s probably rather good. Nonetheless, he signed for $300,000 or less last cycle. If he’s the last piece in the Cole Hamels trade, so be it, and good luck to him.

Now, what does all this have to do with Carlos Zambrano?

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In thinking about this deal, I realized an interesting way to (potentially) make Dominican League ball more real. Not realistic, as the games play anyway. More real, as in personal. I don’t expect you to have a screen on your computer for the DSL every late morning. Nobody does that, except a few of us that are beyond repair. I consider Carlos Morfa as much a Cub as Nico Hoerner.

What I would hope is that you consider Dominican League players part and parcel of the pipeline. In many cases, that won’t happen. Which is your decision. However, what if there are lessons that can be learned from looking at Zambrano’s time in the pipeline? Up through Short-Season Ball, and through the upper levels? Can lessons be embedded in the statistics of players who are, or at least were, retired?

A few people have gone through the premise of known/knowns, known/unknowns, and the variations of that. We don’t know everything there is to know. Some of the things we know, are rubbish. Some of the things we don’t know, are more important than what we do know. Then, add in forgetting. I want my writing to be a smattering of “Well, I already knew thaaaat” and “Hmmmm... That would be an interesting topic to delve into further.” This is an experiment in the latter.

Zambrano was signed out of Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. He entirely jumped over the Dominican League. As such, I’ll need to find another target to examine that level closer. In 1998, he pitched 40 innings as a “first-year” in the Arizona League. He was two years-plus younger than his opposition. He gave up 39 hits, walked 25, and fanned 36.

Those would be good numbers for a first-year player in the DSL. This was a level higher. Those numbers were phenomenal. With the 40 innings, mostly in relief, he skipped the Northwest League entirely, and jumped to full-season ball the next season. It’s a mildly aggressive push, but the Cubs do that now, as well.

In the Midwest League (Lansing), he struggled a bit. Which should be expected. 153⅓ innings with 150 hits, 62 walks, 98 strikeouts, and nine homers. By now, scouts and fans were getting their eyes on Zambrano. I wasn’t tracking minor league ball in 1999, as audio streaming hadn’t become available yet. I wouldn’t catch the bug seriously for another decade. However, Zambrano did well enough in Lansing to justify any ink he was getting.

To update the premise, I doubt recent signing Richard Gallardo does anywhere near as well as Zambrano in his first two seasons. However, Zambrano would serve as a valid benchmark.

The next season, Zambrano entirely skipped Advanced-A Ball. Whether that was wise or not can be argued. However, 20 years ago, teams were far more about “getting talent to MLB quickly” than they are now. Zambrano made quick work of West Tennessee in the Southern League. After nine starts only, in his third pro season, he was already a reliever in Triple-A Iowa. He relieved all 34 appearances that season for the I-Cubs.

The next year, he joined the Iowa rotation, and had finally fought through to be the 68th rated prospect at Baseball America. He debuted in August 2001, well before he would have been Rule 5-eligible. Zambrano was, for all practical purposes, a major-league player now, though he slumped to 80 on that prospect list after his slow MLB start.

Among the things I picked up from this look? Zambrano jumped over Advanced-A Ball without being a nationally ranked prospect. He only needed nine stats to buzz by the Double-A level, which is the toughest adjustment for many.

As he was always young for his level, the strikeouts weren’t as big of an issue with Zambrano. Of course, back then strikeouts were considered more of a negative.

My first look at a now-mature prospect notes that a pitcher needs inning to get better. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Even if a player has a rough season, if he gets in his innings, he has a chance to learn things. Regardless the competition. The pitcher needs innings. Whatever the venue, wherever the location.

Zambrano worked out quite well for the Cubs, for a while, anyway. One wonders if a “mental skills” program being in place might have helped along the way. My two favorite moments of his as a Cub were his homer in this game, and his no-hitter in Milwaukee against Houston. (I remember thinking then, and I still think now, the Cubs would have better that October if he hadn’t gone out for the ninth. Not to start an argument, but that’s a point where I thought “the future” was more important than “the present.”)

I will look at more Cubs prospects after the fact soon. I learned a few things, and expect you might have, as well. Organizations still have internal debates on player development. As such, we, as fans, ought to be allowed differing opinions. My slant on Cubs writing will largely be minors-related. Except when there’s an MLB angle being unjustly underplayed. Because writing is what writers do.