Thursday, January 5, 2012

Marlins add Carlos Zambrano

By David Villavicencio

The Marlins have been in search of a starting pitching upgrade since the final out of the 2011 season was recorded.

They got a big upgrade when they signed Mark Buehrle and now have added an interesting arm in Carlos Zambrano.

Miami did not have to give up much to acquire the three-time All-Star. The Marlins sent young but inconsistent right-hander, Chris Volstad to the Cubs for Big Z and $15 million. The Fish will have to pay the remaining $3 million left on Zambrano's contract this season.

Zambrano was one of the top pitchers in the National League just a few years ago. He finished in the top 5 in the NL Cy Young Award voting in 2004, 2006 and 2007. He won 10 or more games every year from 2003 thru 2008 and led the league in wins in 2006 with 16.

Despite his high walk totals, Zambrano managed to escape any potential damage for most of his career. He's posted an ERA of 3.95 or lower every season from 2001 thru 2010. His career-best ERA of 2.75 was fourth-best in the NL in 2004.

But things have changed for Zambrano in recent years and he became more well known for his violent temper and than his pitching accolades. The right-hander really struggled in 2011, posting a career-worst 4.82 ERA. His nine wins, 101 strikeouts and 145 2/3 innings pitched were all nearly career-lows as well.

To make matters worse, Zambrano quit on his team after getting tattooed by the Braves for eight runs over 4 1/3 innings on August 12. The big right-hander cleaned out his locker and announced he was retiring after that start. When he thought better of it, he said he wanted to return but the Cubs would not have him back. Chicago decided they were better off without the volatile starter and their relationship was irreparable.

Even with a new regime in place led by former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, Zambrano appeared destined for a trade this off-season and the Marlins were immediately linked to the right-hander thanks to their new manager, Ozzie Guillen. The two Venezuelans have reportedly been friends for many years and Guillen even hinted at interest in his fellow countryman since being hired as the Marlins skipper. With Miami starved for pitching upgrades and the Cubs anxious to dump Zambrano's problems on someone else, a trade between the two clubs seemed natural.

The acquisition of Zambrano is an interesting one. On the surface it appears to be low-risk/high-reward with the Marlins hoping Zambrano can return to form in a contract year. They also gave up a player in Volstad that had not lived up to expectations over the years. The former first-rounder appeared to regress after an impressive debut in 2008.

At just 21, Volstad went 6-4 with a 2.88 ERA over 14 starts. Many expected him to continue to develop into a top pitching talent but it just never happened for him. He struggled mightily over his next three years and was demoted multiple times to the minors to try and fix his problems. Upon returning to the Majors, Volstad would show flashes of promise before reverting to the inconsistencies that caused him to fail.

Volstad is still young (25) and may benefit from a change of scenery and new philosophy. One thing is for sure, he better learn to keep the ball down now. The right-hander surrendered 70 home runs over the last three seasons. A smaller ballpark like Wrigley Field is not going to help him keep the ball out of the stands.

Losing Volstad is not a big deal for the Marlins as they have multiple pitchers who can fill the fifth starter role he was penciled into. But Volstad was a guy who got along well with his teammates and generally was a good fit in the clubhouse.

Zambrano has been a polarizing figure over the years. While some say he gets along well with his teammates, he has been portrayed as a cancer in Chicago for years. That may be more media fabrication than fact but it is obvious that he has had several run-ins with teammates in the past.

The presence of Guillen is expected to be good for Zambrano as the two are believed to have a lot of respect for each other and many believe Guillen will ultimately keep Zambrano in line.

While that may be the case, there is also the chance that the two highly volatile personalities can clash and ultimately do more harm than good to the young and emerging Marlins. What will actually happen remains to be seen but it will definitely be interesting to follow that dynamic in 2012.

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