Thursday, July 05, 2007

Don't Shoot the Messenger

Recently, 1060 has discussed at great length Carlos Zambrano and what exactly his future holds. Following GM’s post about the concept of value, many of the readers of this page were thrown into frenzy when they discovered the kind of return the Cubs could hope for if Zambrano was traded.

While I read the discussion in the comments section, I couldn’t help but notice that not one person asked seemingly the most simple, yet essential of questions. Just how good is Carlos Zambrano?

Most fans, whether they cheer for the Cubs or not, wouldn’t even blink at this question. Carlos Zambrano? He’s an All-Star, and one of the best pitchers ever to don blue pinstripes.

But what if he wasn’t? What I mean is—what if the Cubs were to sign him to some megadeal, only for him to suddenly become just an average pitcher, and not the dominating force we’ve all witnessed for the past five or so years. Those same fans who wouldn’t have hesitated to sing Z’s praises would probably scoff at that notion. And I suppose that to a certain degree, it would be hard to fault fans who might feel this way. It’s tough to look at a guy like Zambrano who has done so much for this team over the years and say, “Well, he might be past his prime.”

Unfortunately, not only will Carlos not be a Cub in perpetuity, as GM noted yesterday, but he will not be as good as he has been in perpetuity. In fact, he could be closer to the deep end than most fans realize.

Don’t believe me? Compare Carlos’ numbers from the past year and a half to his body of work from 2003- 2005. Look closely, and you’ll notice a few things. Last season, Carlos set a career high in walks issued with a staggering 115 (I don’t know about you, buy my idea of an ace doesn’t walk 115 guys in one year), while his GB/FB ratio worsened drastically. That’s not all. Last season saw Carlos allow the highest opponent SLG% of his career (.351, which is actually currently being trumped by his 2007 mark of .400). This season he has posted his lowest K/9 rate since 2003, and is on pace to obliterate his career high in HR allowed (21), having given up 16 already (Consider this. Carlos gave up 14 HR in all of 2004). Granted, we are only 83 games and 18 Zambrano starts into the season, so his numbers this year are far from final. But those are certainly some disturbing signs.

Baseball Prospectus’ PETCOTA projection system agrees. If you do subscribe to Prospectus (and if you don’t you should), I urge you to take a look at Zambrano’s five-year projection. If all the graphs and charts have you confused, allow me explain the basic stuff. PETCOTA believes that over the next five years (including 2007) Zambrano will be good for 20.8 WARP (wins above replacement player), with a big drop off expected in what would be just the second year of new a five-year deal (5.0 to 4.1). According to PETCOTA, by just the fourth year of this deal, Zambrano would only provide a marginal upgrade over most pitchers (2.5 WARP, 16.3 VORP). With a projection like that, I don’t even want to know what the fifth and maybe sixth years of this kind of deal would look like.

If you’re curious as to what could be causing such a sudden and steep decline, just consider the workload he has had throughout his career. Carlos has thrown well over 200 innings in each of the past four season, and is on pace to do just the same this season. But it isn’t so much the inning totals as much as the pitch totals for the past few years. If you want to get your head around that number, just check out the #P/GS figure on the ESPN stat page, and see how he stacks up with just about any pitcher that comes to mind. Honestly, I feel like concerns over this workload have been voiced at this page so many times, that I’ll just go ahead and spare everyone from their 500th Zambrano workload speech.

I’m not saying that these numbers and projections are set in stone and will automatically come true. Detractors from this theory will of course point to Carlos’ strong work since coming to blows with Michael Barrett. Who knows? Maybe Zambrano is just some freak of nature who can handle this kind of inhuman workload. But the bottom line is there just aren’t any cases of guys who underwent such stress at such a young age and experienced great success into their 30s. Just look at his most comparable pitchers list at the bottom of his PETCOTA card. You might just see a familiar name.

It’s not like I’m trying to debate whether or not Zambrano will in fact be signed. That’s really neither here nor there. I’m just making a case for considering trading Zambrano now, even if that means working with very little leverage. Maybe the Cubs’ brass simply feels like Zambrano means too much to this team in the near future that any risk they inherit from a long-term deal would be worth it. I mean, losing Zambrano would mean that someone would have to take his place. And make no mistake about it those would be big shoes to fill.

My only point is, before you go out and get your hands on an authentic Carlos Zambrano jersey, you might want to consider his future prospects. Just don’t shoot the messenger.

No comments: