Overall Value: Volstad Or Zambrano


When Tom Rickets, owner of the Chicago Cubs, went out and hired Theo Epstein as head of baseball operation this year, he hit a home run.

It may as well have been a breaking ball that just hung in the zone too long and Rickets got his metaphorical wood all over that bad boy.

While I sat and steamed the press conference announcing Epstein as part of the Cubs’ brass, I could see that ball sailing over the ivy and on to Sheffield street. Rickets’ smile said it all: he knew he had done well for himself. His smile permeated through my laptop screen and I couldn’t help but smile too. This was to be the start of a new era in Cubs baseball: one focused on setting and achieving goals, thorough process, and result oriented baseball.

Sounds great… but making the appropriate changes were going to be the true test for Epstein. We all know that talk is cheap.

So far, I haven’t been disappointed by any of Epstein’s moves. He’s cutting back on salary, focused on generating homegrown talent (now that you can no longer go out and “buy” prospects thanks to the new CBA), beefed up the minor leagues and made the Cubs’ farm system respectable with decent prospects in the mix. Much more than I can say about the Jim Hendry and Mike Quade era of bad contracts and piss poor effort.

One of the most significant moves that Epstein made was moving Carlos Zambrano to Miami for Chris Volstad and agreed to eat up $15.5 million of his $18 million salary.

This may be the best move that Epstein has made, despite the fact that Zambrano is a very good pitcher (when he’s on and focused) and Volstad is a 24 year old still trying to prove his worth in the bigs.

Both pitcher made their big league debuts around the same time – Zambrano at 20 and Volstad at 21 – but you have to always consider that Zambrano is 30 years old and been around the majors for much longer than Volstad. Just something to keep in mind as we move forward…

Lets break these two down so we can get a deeper understanding of why this deal made so much sense to the Cubs.

Chris Volstad:

  • Considering the league average ERA is somewhere in the range of 4.10 – 4.30 , Volstad had a decent campaign last year (code for “not great”). He posted a 4.89 ERA in 29 games last season which is up slightly from 2010. Having pitched roughly the same amount of innings in 2010 as he did in 2011 shows that he may have lost some control of his off-speed pitches; however this is not of serious concern as he’s now showing good command of the strike zone posting a 6.36 K/9 ratio, which is on par from his previous efforts.
  • His BB/9 is where the real story lies. Volstad is walking far fewer batter now than ever in his major league career posting a 2.66 BB/9. This is a significant drop from his 2010 campaign (3.09 BB/9) and illustrates that his command is developing nicely. Having spent some times in AAA over the last couple years probably didn’t hurt his development either and he’s now starting to see the benefits.
  • Not all is well for Mr. Volstad though. His WHIP is a little high at 1.42 and a losing record of 5-13 may hurt his confidence coming in to the season. He also posting a 52.3 GB% which is pretty good and shows that he’s throwing most of his pitches low or away in order to keep his defense involved in the process, but with a 1.25% HR/9 its cause for concern. Volstad will have to learn how to place his pitches better in the upcoming seasons so that power hitters wont prey on his low fastball offerings.
  • Thankfully for Cubs’ fans, Chris Bosio  – the Cubs’ new pitching coach – loves Volstad’s stuff and he’s currently jockeying against guys like Jeff Samardzija, Randy Wells, Travis Wood, and Rodrigo Lopez for the final 2 rotation spots for the 2012 season. This element of competition will allow Volstad to either settle in at the mound on continue to work on his arsenal for the AAA Iowa Cubs.

If he continues to work hard and stay healthy, Volstad has a bright future with the North Siders.

Carlos Zambrano:

  • Zambrano enjoyed being the poster child for the Cubs’ bullpen in his glory days and his numbers reflected it. He maintained an ERA under 4 for 6 straight seasons before faltering in 2011 where he posted a 4.82. Thats pretty damned impressive, but its the current numbers that are of concern for the Cubs and there’s a consistent trend with Zambrano’s numbers. They’ve all been steadily getting a bit worse with a sharp dive overall in 2011. Maybe its age… or maybe Carlos stopped trying.
  • Zabrano is a solid “inning eater” but his appetite has diminished in the last two years. Pitching only 145 2/3 innings in 2011 and worse yet, only 129 2/3 in 2010 is no where near the 200+ innings he used to provide the Cubs. This is much easier to blame on age, as Zambrano is getting old by baseball standards and it would be unwise to put him on the mound for 200+ innings.
  • As we highlighted before, the fall in Zambrano’s performance continues when we look at his HR/9%. Zambrano used to display excellent command of the strike zone by keeping his HR/9% consistently under 1 for the duration of his career only slipping in 2011 posting a 1.17. Don’t get me wrong… that’s still pretty solid but its not nearly the Zambrano of old.
  • Zambrano threw fewer strikeouts than his career average of ~8.10 K/9 in 2011  (6.24 K/9%) but also ironically threw fewer walks as well (down 3.29% from 2010). This is indicative of batters making more contact with his pitches and a spike in his ERA leads me to believe that poor defense may have been an issue. If Big Z has some proper fielding out there, I’m almost certain his ERA is significantly less.
  • A BABIP of .298 also re-enforces the “poor defense” theory I just laid out. I just wanted to separate it with another bullet because it looks fancy. Gotcha!

When it comes to Zambrano, we always have to look at the intangible impact he had on the team. He was a little crazy in Chicago, having walked out on the team on more than one occasion and destroying an innocent Gatorade machine. All these things have an extremely negative impact on team moral and – sadly for all you sabermetric heads out there – you can’t assign a number value to it (yet). This impact was felt by the media, the fans and just about everywhere you went in Chicago if you were a Cubs fan.

Overall you have to accept that Zambrano is a better pitcher than Volstad. Experience in the MLB is so incredibly valuable and that’s something that Volstad just doesn’t have yet. However, when you look at Zambrano’s performance when he was the same age as Volstad is now, you see a lot of similarities. They both show a strong learning curve by curbing their ERAs and BB/9 immediately after their rookie seasons… and that’s just listing off an obvious one. By this logic, Volstad is on the same developmental path that Zambrano was on when he was earning his stripes in the MLB. Should Volstad become as strong a pitcher as Zambrano was in his prime, the Cubs will have a valuable weapon in their bullpen

In the end, Chris Volstad is of better value to the Cubs.

He has no past “temper tantrum” history, is much younger and is displaying some decent pitching for the North Siders. He may not be as skilled as Zambrano yet, but they have faith in their developmental system and coaching staff. The Cubs simply had to give Zambrano a change of scenery. Their hand was entirely forced.

There are no real losers in this deal. Zambrano may flourish under Ozzie Guillen in Miami and the Cubs may have obtained a future franchise player.

Only time will tell, and that’s the reason we tune in every day to watch the great game of baseball.