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Silva, Zambrano, and winning

Posted By Eddie Kim On May 19 2010 @ 8:33 am In Chicago Cubs | 1 Comment

It looks like the Carlos Zambrano experiment is over.

A day after manager Lou Piniella announced that Zambrano would be stretched out in the bullpen for the purposes of re-entering him into the rotation, Piniella asked Zambrano to close out Colorado by pitching the ninth inning of Tuesday’s 6-2 win over the Rockies. But we shouldn’t read too much into that: it was a move made out of necessity. With closer Carlos Marmol being overworked the day before, Piniella needed to look to someone else to pitch the ninth inning, especially after his team was able to tack on two insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth inning.

Carlos Silva started the game for the Cubs and turned in yet another solid performance. Starting the game with six scoreless innings, Silva gave his offense the necessary time to jump on the Rockies first and Silva was able to improve to 5-0 on the year. In fact, Silva is one of just four starting pitchers in the league that have still yet to suffer a loss. Washington’s Luis Atilano is 3-0 in five starts, Cincinnati’s Mike Leake is 4-0 after seven starts, and San Francisco’s Tim Lincecum is 5-0 after eight starts. Of Silva’s eight starts, six of them have been quality starts and the only two non-quality starts where when his offense supported him with a large lead that dictated Silva attack the strike zone. In Silva’s starts this year, the Cubs are 7-1.

This is especially important for Silva because it will be interesting to see who Zambrano will replace when he re-enters the rotation. You will recall that Silva narrowly made the rotation out of spring training, but based on his performance thus far it seems unlikely that he will be the one to come out when Zambrano is back in. Rather, it seems the odd-man out will be Tom Gorzelanny. Though Gorzelanny sports a 1-4 record so far, he has thrown the ball better than that. Gorzelanny has a 3.60 ERA and has been up against some of the league’s best pitchers, such as New York’s Johan Santana and Washington’s Livan Hernandez. But with Ryan Dempster, Randy Wells, and Ted Lilly not expected to go anywhere, moving Gorzelanny to the bullpen might be the team’s only option. In any event, that isn’t an immediate concern right now — the time when Zambrano moves to the rotation is a few weeks away, so things may change between now and then.

Actually, the immediate concern that Piniella faces is figuring out who the eighth inning role will go to. Aside from Marmol, the most consistent pitcher in the bullpen has been Sean Marshall, who has a 2.11 ERA and 27 strikeouts in 21.1 innings of work. But I really believe that the team needs to figure out a way to get John Grabow back on track. Grabow has shown flashes of brilliance here and there this season, but has been wildly inconsistent for the most part. Based on history, however, Grabow should be able to right his ship. In the past two seasons combined, Grabow has a 3.09 ERA with 9 wins, 39 holds and 4 saves against just 3 losses and 6 blown saves. That kind of performance from him this year would go a long way in shoring up the bullpen.

Many see the decision to move Zambrano to the bullpen as a failed one and believe that the team is finally correcting the mistake. But let’s not be so quick to judge. When the move was announced before the game on April 21, the team had lost four in a row and was 5-9 on the year. Right after the move was announced, the team won five of its next six games and immediately climbed back to the .500 mark at 10-10. It’s important to realize that moving Zambrano to the bullpen sent a message to the entire team.

Since the move, many key parts of the team started to perform better. Marlon Byrd has hit .380 with 12 doubles, 4 homers and 15 RBI since then. Alfonso Soriano has batted .338 with 7 doubles, 6 homers and 20 RBI during the same stretch and Kosuke Fukudome has hit .333 with 6 doubles, 4 homers and 10 RBI. Ryan Theriot has been a .368 hitter since April 21. In fact, with the exception of Aramis Ramirez, almost every position player on the team has played better by a considerable margin since Zambrano was moved into the bullpen.

During the 2007 season, I pointed much of the Cubs’ success to Piniella’s ejection on June 2. At the time, the Cubs were 22-31 and sitting in fourth place, 7.5 games out of first place. But in the 53 games immediately following Piniella’s mini-tirade on third-base umpire Mark Wegner, the team went 35-18 and climbed into first place. Certainly, I am not suggesting that the ejection had something to do with each and every one of those 35 wins. But it didn’t have to, because baseball is such a streaky game.

For a struggling batter, we always look for that one base hit that can get him going again. For a pitcher, it might be just one appearance that shows he has turned the corner. The trick is starting with something small and building off of that to put together an extended period of consistency. So while Piniella’s ejection in 2007 might not have fueled the fire for each of the wins that followed, it may have helped the team win the next game. Riding off of that win maybe helped the team win the game after that. And so on. It seems like Piniella was trying to achieve a similar result with the dramatic shift of moving Zambrano to the bullpen this year.

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