Defending Big Z's big contract

Gee, $91.5 million does seem like a lot of money for a pitcher who has three wins and has been suspended indefinitely. Ah, but at least someone will defend Carlos Zambrano's contract:

    "There was nothing wrong with the investment," GM Jim Hendry said Sunday about the contract. "This guy was an outstanding pitcher in the National League, in the game, for the four, five years before that. There was no question that the deal was a solid one in the industry. He certainly would have been one of the hotter tickets on the street if that thing went to the end of the season.


    Really, over the body of work, pitched as well as anybody in the National League for a three, four year period. He certainly pitched well enough to earn that contract whether it's here or somewhere else."

Zambrano signed his extension on the August 17, 2007. At that moment, he was 14-9 with a 3.86 ERA (and in the midst of a five-game losing streak). For the sake of simplicity, let's sort of assume he didn't sign the new deal until after the season. Had Zambrano really pitched "as well as anybody" over those previous three or four seasons?

Well, no. But he wasn't far off. Considering only National League starters who averaged at least 200 innings per season, from 2005 through 2007 Zambrano ranked fourth in ERA+; from 2004 through 2007 he was third. Zambrano pretty obviously wasn't pitching as well as Brandon Webb or Roy Oswalt, but otherwise -- considering his youth and his demonstrated durability -- you might reasonably have argued that Zambrano was the third-best starter in the National League over those three or four years. No question, he was immense valuable.

Here's Aaron Gleeman reacting to Hendry's defense:

    And you know what? He's right.

    At the time of the deal there were certainly some signs that Zambrano wouldn't age particularly well, because his performance had already slipped a bit and he'd racked up a ton of mileage on his arm. However, he was a 26-year-old workhorse with an 82-55 record and 3.41 ERA in nearly 1,200 career innings, including five straight 200-inning seasons and top-five Cy Young finishes in three of the previous four years.

Here's where I part ways with Hendry and Gleeman. It's almost undoubtedly true that Zambrano would have gotten more money if he'd become a free agent and signed with another team. It's also true that the Cubs, having employed Zambrano for a whole decade, should have known him better than anyone else.

Here's what I wrote about the deal at the time (admittedly, it wasn't much):

    Does Zambrano deserve $18 million per season? Well, if you think Barry Zito deserves his $18 million per season, then Zambrano is definitely worth that much. OK, bad example. Zambrano's one of the five best pitchers in the National League, so he was going to get this money or more, somewhere. Still, I wonder if the Cubs might have been better off spending their $91.5 million who's been tested in the real major league.

Yeah, that was a cheap shot there at the end. I could have mentioned that Zambrano's underlying statistics generally hadn't been as good as his ERA; his strikeout-to-walk ratios, in particular. I could have mentioned Zambrano's volatile personality, except I don't really believe that I'm qualified to pass judgment on such things, particularly if they don't seem to adversely affect a player's performance.

Hendry is another story. Hendry should have noticed that Zambrano's underlying performance probably wouldn't support those low ERAs, and Hendry should have known that Zambrano's personality might become an issue at some point.

Yeah, that's a cheap shot. I thought (and think) the Cubs overpaid for Zambrano. But if he wasn't worth $91.5 million, he must have been worth $81.5 million, right? Or $71.5 million? I guess all I'm trying to say is this: When we're setting down everything in the big ledger, we ultimately have to decide if the move worked or didn't work. Yes, second-guessing can be terribly unfairbut isn't it fair to assume Hendry had information about Zambrano that we didn't have? And that such information might have been enough to convince some general managers to spend their $91.5 million otherwise?

Hendry's got a tough job. But I'm not inclined to just give him a free pass on this one.