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Cubs’ Problems Not Limited to Zambrano

June 27, 2010

Let me set the scene for you. It was Friday night and the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox were just starting a three-game series on Chicago’s South Side. The White Sox had taken two of three from the Cubs earlier in the month on the Cubs home turf. The Cubs would be looking for retribution in the hopes of at least evening the season series between the two cross-town rivals. For fans settling into their seats it was a pitching matchup sure to be desired. Carlos Zambrano vs. Jake Peavy.

Peavy started things off well, retiring all three batters in order in the top of the 1st inning. Kosuke Fukodome flied out to left. Tyler Colvin struck out swinging. Marlon Byrd grounded out to third.

Zambrano wasn’t quite as fortunate. Juan Pierre doubled to right. Omar Vizquel flied out to right. Alex Rios doubled to right, scoring Pierre. Paul Konerko singled to left, moving Rios to third. Carlos Quentin homered to left, scoring Rios and Konerko. Mark Kotsay struck out looking. A.J. Pierzynski grounded out to first.

After working his way out of the inning, Zambrano stormed into the Cubs dugout. He slammed his cap and glove against the dugout wall. He screamed at his teammates. Veteran first baseman Derrek Lee started saying something back, so Zambrano went to get in his face. Upon being restrained he subsequently continued to take his aggression out on anything in his path. The Gatorade cooler, one of Zambrano’s historically favorite targets, was the first to take a beating.

Manager Lou Piniella told Zambrano to go home. After the game, which the Cubs would end up losing 6-0, GM Jim Hendry told Zambrano (and the media) that he’d be suspended indefinitely for his actions.

“That’s something that can’t be tolerated,” said Piniella after the game.

Piniella, and the Cubs, aren’t strangers to problems in the dugout or in the clubhouse. They aren’t strangers to problems, or outbursts, from Zambrano. But they aren’t really prepared to deal with this situation. At least not in a manner which will bring about a quick (and successful) resolution.

Suspending Zambrano will likely send a message. To Zambrano, the message will be it’s time to cut this behavior out. To the rest of the team, the message will be that insubordination and a lack of teamwork will not be tolerated. To me, the message is simply that the Cubs are on the brink of completely falling apart. As if their performance this season wasn’t bad enough, now it seems even more so that the organization is moving in the wrong direction. And perhaps it’s time for Piniella to leave town as he’s seemingly lost this team.

Now I’m not going to condone anything that Zambrano did. Bottom line, he was completely out of line with his actions. Speculation has been presented that his frustrations were due to a feeling that his teammates should have dived for some of the balls hit that inning. He was upset because they didn’t prevent the hits that ultimately would cost the team runs. Until Zambrano comes out and says that this is exactly what frustrated him (an admission we will not be getting) we can’t really say what caused the outburst. Either way, this doesn’t look good for him.

White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, a longtime friend of Zambrano, met with the frustrated pitcher that night over dinner, according to various reports. While an opposing manager meeting with a player in such a situation is rather uncommon, neither Hendry or Sox GM Kenny Williams seemed to have much of a problem with the meeting. Most are aware of the relationship between the two, so the meeting wasn’t much of a surprise to either organization. From the sounds of things, both sides felt it could benefit Zambrano.

“Ozzie probably had some things that I’m sure the Cubs and Lou and Jim would have liked to have said to Carlos, that he was able to say in a much different way and probably get through to him,” Williams said in an interview with ESPN Radio.

As I’ve mentioned, Zambrano clearly did not handle the situation correctly. And when this suspension is lifted and he is encouraged to talk about what happened, we might (but probably won’t) luck out and gain some insight into what set him off. So far, at least, it seems as though Hendry is handling the situation well.

Piniella, however, I’m not so quick to agree on. And neither is Rob Neyer. He took notice of Piniella’s joking about the situation after the game, in which he referred to the last time he was forced to send a player home. That took place last season, during a series at the White Sox, when former Cub Milton Bradley was dismissed from the team for similar conduct. Piniella, who has always been one with a fiery personality, was probably trying to make light of the situation. The problem though, is that it isn’t a situation to make light of. These type of incidents aren’t happening in other organizations. Sure, other organizations have their problems but they aren’t like these. Piniella, once thought of as a strong leader, doesn’t seem to have enough control over this team anymore. He’s lost a step and outbursts like Zambrano’s wouldn’t happen with stronger leadership. For Piniella to joke about the situation, it shows poor judgment on his part.

Ultimately the Cubs have a decision to make. They’ve already said that when Zambrano returns from this suspension they are going to push him to the bullpen and give his spot in the rotation to Tom Gorzelanny. But Zambrano is not a relief pitcher. He’s a starter who hasn’t been living up to his abilities. He’s also carrying a massive contract that will pay him roughly $45 Million through the end of the 2012 season. Between the contract, his no-trade clause, and his performance, and now this incident, trading him is not going to be an easy task by any means. Releasing him isn’t a good option either. If the team is willing to absorb some of his remaining salary they should at least do so via trade in order to get something in return for him. There are two questions that need to be answered, however. Should the Cubs trade Zambrano? Who would be willing to acquire him?

Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Sun Times thinks that the only option the Cubs have is to move Zambrano. At the bottom of his article he touches on something that crossed my mind immediately after learning about the entire incident on Friday night. Could the White Sox be a potential suitor?

First, there are the obvious factors. Zambrano and Guillen are good friends so, in theory, Guillen would be able to control Zambrano’s outbursts, at least more so than Piniella. Zambrano also already is used to the city of Chicago. He wouldn’t have to learn a new city or expose his family (if he has one) to a sudden move. Plus, for a pitcher who has spent his career in the NL Central, it might do him some good to move to the AL where all of the hitters aren’t quite as familiar with him. He might be able to regain some of the potential that earned him the big contract he has.

A few weeks ago when the Sox were seemingly about to start selling off players such a deal would have seem unfathomable. But since that time the Sox had rattled off 11 straight wins before losing the finale of the series this afternoon. They’ve been playing well and have pulled back within striking distance in the AL Central. They don’
t really need another starting pitcher. However, there could be one simple alternative that could be done.

When Peavy was originally on the trade market, the Cubs were one of the more active teams in talking to the San Diego Padres about acquiring the pitcher. He would eventually be dealt to the White Sox in exchange for a number of young players. Peavy has done well on the South Side but hasn’t been overly dominant in the AL. He has roughly $36 Million left on his contract that runs through the end of the 2012 season. He’s also said that if the White Sox fall out of contention he would rather be traded than go through another rebuilding effort.

Could a Peavy for Zambrano swap work for both teams? Or, if the Sox were interested in acquiring Zambrano, would they prefer to pair him with Peavy and Mark Buerhle atop the rotation?

Time will tell how this whole situation pans out – whether Zambrano is traded to the Sox, whether he’s traded at all, how long this suspension will last and how he’ll respond to it all.

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