Thursday, January 05, 2012

Trading a Z for a V is Good in Scrabble

Chicago is going to be a sleepy baseball town in 2012. No more Ozzie Guillen managing the White Sox and if reports are correct, no more Carlos Zambrano on the Cubs. That would be like the Republican Party losing Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin. This author will let you decide if that's a bad thing or not. What this author intends to decide is if Chicago losing Carlos Zambrano is a good thing or not. The temptation is to write a single word sentence and move on to other things: Yes.

But that would be taking the easy way out. Zambrano will only be 31 in June. So it's not like he's an over-the-hill, washed-out arm. He has lost a couple of MPH on his fastball of late. But that could be due to all the time he has missed for his antics. He hasn't pitched 200 innings since 2007. He was worth three and a half wins in 2009 but sunk down to less than two and a half in 2010. He bottomed out last year with a value less than a win. For a guy making $18 million, that wasn't a good value proposition for the Cubs.

Frankly, if this Fan were a pitcher and played in front of that Cubs' defense, which was second from last in defensive efficiency last year, this Fan might have also had a hissy or two. Good luck to him with that Marlins' defense, which wasn't much better (though they did upgrade at shortstop this off season). If you were really old school, you might love Zambrano's career win-loss total. The guy has won forty-four more games in his career than he's lost. Even last year, he was 9-7. The guy's a winner, right?

But nobody thinks like that anymore, do they? Well, okay, maybe they do. His winning record sure does look good when placed side by side with Chris Volstad. Volstad might be on the Vernon Wells' even/odd year vortex. Volstad was a combined 18-13 in 2008 and 2010. But he was a combined 14-26 in the odd years of 2009 and 2011. If we believe in such random events being a pattern, then 2012 should be a good year for him.

Now that the Fan has covered things from the Murray Chass angle, what have we really got here? The Cubs basically are paying $16 million for Chris Volstad's services in 2012. $15 million of that goes to the Marlins to cover most of Zambrano's salary. The other million or so is what Volstad will make in his first arbitration year. We've got a problem here because Volstad has never had a season (even or odd) that was worth more than $7.2 million. So the Cubs are overpaying for him by more than double in 2012. But Volstad will be under Cubs' control until 2015, so even if he is only worth $7 million a season, he'll be a value in 2013 and 2014 and the Cubs won't have to worry about Zambrano anymore.

It's hard to believe that this deal was only based on the desire to get rid of Zambrano. Though Theo Epstein has done that before when he got rid of MannyBManny in Boston. Volstad has to have an upside that the Cubs see and to this author's hazel eyes, there just might be one. Volstad suddenly became homer-plagued in 2011. Could that be flukish? The homers were essentially his problem in both odd year meltdowns. His homer to fly ball rate the last four years looks like a Wall Street chart: 3.9 percent, 17.5 percent, 8.8 percent and 15.5 percent. Volstad also gave up his highest rate of hits per nine innings in 2011. Was that flukish as well with a BABIP of .310? Remember, the Marlins defense was awful too in 2011.

There are things to like in Volstad's numbers. He lowered his walk rate (6.8 percent compared to a career 8.1), increased his ground ball rate (52.3 percent compared to a career 50.4) and sported a 3.64 xFIP and 3.84 SIERA, both decidedly lower than his actual ERA.

Volstad has to improve to three-win pitcher for 2012 to pay off Zambrano. That's somewhat unlikely, but not impossible. But Volstad doesn't have to be a three-win pitcher after 2012 to be a bargain. Zambrano for the Marlins? He's only going to cost them $3 million this season and it shouldn't take much for him to be better for them than Volstad was in 2011. It would be great if he could find his fastball again and lower his walk rate (not to mention his personality pain threshold). It will be costly for the Marlins if Zambrano has a remarkable season. According to the report linked earlier, Zambrano has a $19 million option for 2013 if he finishes in the top four in Cy Young voting. But who sees that coming?

One other thing. Carlos Zambrano can really hit. Volstad can't. That might be worth another half a win by itself.

All Zambrano has to be is solid for the Marlins to make this worth their while. When playing Scrabble, you'd rather have a V than a Z, but if you can make a word with a Z, it's worth ten points. V words only gain you eight points. Take that however you want.

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