Big Z dropped on depth chart again

You thought the Cubs had buried Carlos Zambrano? Now they're really burying him:

Cubs manager Lou Piniella said Zambrano would be "stretched out" so he can be switched from short to long relief. Could that move signal his eventual return to the rotation?

"He [Lou Piniella] told me today there may be a chance I'll go back to the rotation," Zambrano said. "We'll see how everything works out in the next few days for me."

Since joining the bullpen on April 24, Zambrano has pitched in eight games and has a 6.23 ERA. When asked if Zambrano was headed back to the rotation, Piniella didn't offer a timetable.

"Probably down the road if need be," he said. "We thought the outcome would be a little different. He's not comfortable in the bullpen pitching short. We're going to use him in a different role, build up some stamina, build up his arm. That's what we're going to do."

But how often will Zambrano actually pitch in "long relief?" And how valuable will he be in that role? The Cub Reporter:

Thing is, Cub starters are averaging better than six innings per outing so it doesn't seem like there is much "long relief" duty to be had. Unless we're talking about mop-up duty in those lost cause games, in which case I'd say that having an $18MM-a-year Mop-Up Man seems a lot sillier than having an $18MM-a-year Setup Guy.

Like just about everything involving this team this year, the Zambrano situation should be fascinating, if not actually enjoyable, to watch.

This might sound crazy, but if I were a Cubs fan right now, I would be guardedly optimistic.

Why? Because the Cubs are fourth in the league in OPS and their starting pitchers have the sixth-best ERA in the league. That's a pretty good place to start.

Of course, the bullpen's been awful, with a 5.24 ERA. Ostensibly, Zambrano was supposed to help lower that number; he's got a 6.23 ERA since shifting to relief duties.

But this latest role change is yet another Pure ERA Move (PEM), right? In (almost) nine relief innings, Zambrano's got seven strikeouts and two walks, given up one home run. But he's also given up a .438 batting average on balls in play, even higher than his .423 BABiP in his four early-season starts. The guy just can't catch a break.

And by extension, neither can the Cubs. That fourth-best OPS? They're just eighth in the league in runs. They would almost be better off if one of the starters tanked, so Piniella would have an excuse to put Zambrano back into the rotation. But all five guys are just sort of plugging along, either posting mid-3 ERAs or suggesting they might, eventually.

In the long run, though, it's hard to win if you don't get the great majority of your money (and talent) on the field. I have this sneaking suspicion that the Cubs are going to make a move this summer. But I don't think it's going to happen without Zambrano throwing a fair number of innings that matter.