Cubs: Carlos Zambrano brought a little bit of everything to the table
When we talk about Cubs pitchers of the early 2000s, we tend to talk about ‘what might have been’ with Kerry Wood and Mark Prior – or maybe the second coming of Greg Maddux. Despite being a rock at or near the top of the starting rotation for a decade, though, it seems like Carlos Zambrano doesn’t get nearly the love he once did.
Signed back in 1997, the Venezuelan native made his big league debut four years later, making one start and five relief appearances for the 2001 Cubs – just enough to get his toes wet in the big leagues. From there, though, it didn’t take long for him to play his way into a prominent role on the pitching staff.
He split time between the rotation and bullpen in his first full big league season, making 16 starts and an equal number of relief appearances while working to a 3.66 ERA. But in 2003, it was Zambrano’s coming-out performance as a full-time starter, playing a day role on the NL Central Division champions.
Thanks partly to a league-best 0.4 HR/9 mark, Big Z – at just 22 years old – was part of the team’s young three-headed monster atop the rotation alongside Wood and Prior. He cracked 200 innings for the first time in his career and, in the process, kicked off a stretch of five-straight 200+ inning seasons in Chicago.
Wood and Prior were the only two Cubs more valuable that year, if you ask Baseball Reference. In August, the big righty flirted with a no-hitter in Arizona but fell short. As we all know now, though, Zambrano eventually crossed that off the to-do list in 2008 in the only neutral site no-no in MLB history.