Would You Trade Juan Uribe for Carlos Zambrano?


So here’s a thought exercise for the day before the Dodgers send Chad Billingsley out against Yovani Gallardo this evening: would you trade Juan Uribe for Carlos Zambrano, the undeniably-talented-but-maybe-Milton Bradley-level-crazy Cub starter who is currently fighting a suspension handed down when he cleaned out his locker following an ejection over the weekend? (Let’s be clear: what follows is entirely speculation. This is not a rumor or anything close to one, just something interesting to spend an afternoon on.)

Tim Dierkes, Cubs fan and mastermind of MlbTradeRumors, runs through the list of “my problem for your problem” deals the Cubs could make to be rid of Zambrano - suggestions include Barry Zito, Aaron Rowand, Chone Figgins, and Adam Dunn – and the Dodgers, along with everyone’s favorite overweight infielder, make an appearance: (link h/t Jon Weisman)

Zambrano and $2MM to the Dodgers for Juan Uribe.  If the Dodgers are having buyer’s remorse on Uribe, this could be a way to wash their hands of the deal after 2012 instead of ’13.  But since Uribe still has some positive value, the Cubs would have to add a player or additional money.

First, the money: after making $5m this year, Uribe still has $16m coming to him over the next two seasons. Zambrano gets $17.875m this year, and $18m in 2012, along with a 2013 vesting option that has almost no chance of activating. Since this season is largely done, that’s where Dierkes’ suggestion of $2m comes in – to bridge the gap between Uribe’s $16m and Zambrano’s $18m.

So if the money is a wash, which player is preferable? Uribe, 33 next March, has had something like two decent seasons in the last five, and has been a complete disaster as a Dodger, though he still flashes a good glove, and both teams are looking to go with a good young shortstop prospect next year while having no answers at 2B and 3B. Zambrano, 30 as of this June 1, is probably not as good as the reputation he gained while putting up shiny win-loss records for good Chicago clubs in the early and middle part of the decade, but generally has a FIP in the 3.50-4.50 range, and don’t forget that this is a world where Ted Lilly picked up $33m guaranteed. If you’re talking about talent vs talent, the younger pitcher with the better track record beats the older infielder with a mediocre history nearly every time.

The catch, of course, is that Zambrano is a lunatic, while Uribe has no such baggage. The list of his trangressions are long and varied, and the possibility that the Cubs may be done with him depreciates his trade value, and there’s more than a few teams who wouldn’t think about touching him. I’m not sure I’d place the Dodgers in that category, however; for all the things that we’ve seen go wrong this year, clubhouse harmony has not been one of them. This is, by all accounts, a solid group of characters and Don Mattingly has done a good job of keeping the team on track through a trying season. In addition, this a team that in recent years survived Manny Ramirez and successfully took on another troubled pitcher, Vicente Padilla.

The question then would be, is the money better spent on a pitcher or an infielder, and there’s the tough part. Hiroki Kuroda may or may not return in 2012 – doing this deal would all but ensure that he wouldn’t – and Rubby De La Rosa is out following Tommy John surgery, so adding another arm would be nice to prevent rushing guys like Nathan Eovaldi and Allen Webster. On the other hand, this is a Dodger infield that has zero guaranteed starters for 2012; James Loney, Casey Blake, Jamey Carroll, and Aaron Miles could all be gone, and Dee Gordon has yet to prove that he has either the health or the ability to be the shortstop for a full season. Trading Uribe would further weaken the already tenuous infield depth, and so maybe it’s better to try to keep Uribe and hang on to Kuroda, rather than turn Uribe into Zambrano and say so long to Hiroki.

Two sides to this proposal, clearly: which way do you lean?

Scouting the Market: Starting Pitching

Let’s start with the reality check you’re already no doubt aware of: the Dodgers aren’t going to get an “ace pitcher”. There’s just too many hurdles; between the immense amount of competition for the few decent arms available, the lack of upper-level minor league talent in the Dodger system, and the never-ending impact of McDivorce Court on the payroll, it’s just not going to happen.

They obviously didn’t get Cliff Lee, and they’re also not going to get Roy Oswalt, who’s still got north of $30m (probably, assuming he requires his 2012 option to be picked up upon being traded) coming to him. Even if the Dodgers could afford that kind of outlay – guess what, they can’t – the Astros’ talent demands are apparently, well, astronomical. (Sorry.) The same goes for Dan Haren, who also has upwards of $30m coming his way, without even considering what kind of price the D-Backs would extract for dealing within the division.

Those are the top pitchers on the market, and the Dodgers aren’t going to get any of them. This isn’t a revelation; you knew that already, so no use dreaming on what a Kershaw/Oswalt/Kuroda/Billingsley playoff rotation could be like. But what you can count on is that the Dodgers are going to get someone. Though the rotation has stabilized somewhat, depth is non-existent. All it takes is one absence from older, more injury-prone pitchers like Hiroki Kuroda and Vicente Padilla for the Dodgers to be sent back into the James McDonald/Carlos Monasterios/Charlie Haeger wormhole – and that’s without considering John Ely‘s growing inconsistency and devastating rookieness (I’m channeling Joe Torre here.)

Now you can argue whether or not you think it’s worthwhile to trade prospects for another starter, but you can’t really disagree with the fact that it’s going to happen. So we’re not talking about getting anyone who’s going to be teaming up with Clayton Kershaw to form a killer 1-2 October punch, unfortunately. I’m talking about exactly the kind of deals we saw in 2009, for relatively reliable veterans like Padilla and Jon Garland.

But remember, there’s a bigger need here as well; only Billingsley, Kershaw, and Ely are under contract for next season, and while Ely’s got an inside track to claiming a job, I wouldn’t call it a certainty just yet. The Dodgers are going to need to get at least two - and possibly three - starters before next year, and with Bill Shaikin already forecasting an offseason of “payroll limbo”, cost is going to be a huge issue. So some consideration must be paid to pitchers who under control for 2011 and beyond as well.

So let’s spitball some names, and yes: some of them are kind of depressing. It’s just the situation we find ourselves in. Before I begin, some other names that were suggested to me and why I didn’t include them: Brett Myers (no indication he’s on the market), Ricky Nolasco (talent cost would be too high), Rick Porcello (lousy year or not, the Tigers would be crazy to give up on him at 21), Pedro Martinez (would need several weeks to be ready to help, which the Dodgers probably wouldn’t be willing to wait for) & Fausto Carmona (incredibly team-friendly deal means he wouldn’t come cheap, and as a groundballer he needs a better defense than the Dodgers can provide).

Brian Bannister (7-7, 5.56)
Contract status: ~$1m remaining in 2010. Team control for ’11 and ’12.

Bannister, the hero of stat dorks everywhere and owner of bizarre day/night splits, has hardly been a world-beater in Kansas City. Don’t let the ERA fool you, though, because his xFIP is a more realistic 4.70. He’s been a little unlucky on home run balls, but otherwise his peripherals are more or less the same as they ever were.

Rany Jazayerli imagines the KC pitch:

Let’s face it: with his upper-80s fastball, there’s simply a limit to how good Bannister can be in the superior league. He’s the quintessential National League pitcher; against inferior hitters, without having to face the DH, and in a big ballpark – hello, NL West! – he could be a revelation. Plus, he’s an excellent hitter for a pitcher. At least, this is the pitch the Royals should be making.

Bannister’s reasonable contract is both a blessing and a curse; it would fit into the Dodgers’ payroll, but it also means that KC doesn’t need to dump him for peanuts. From the Royals’ point of view, their stacked farm system is so close that Bannister may be out of a job by this time next year anyway, so it may behoove them to move him now while they can. Additional terrifying bonus: Kyle Farnsworth is rumored to be available too, for possible packaging! I’m not sure how I’d feel about acquiring one of my favorite baseball players alongside one of my least favorite.

Shaun Marcum (7-4, 3.44)
Contract status: ~400k remaining in 2010. Team control for ’11 and ’12.

Marcum’s a pretty interesting case. When he’s healthy, he’s quite good, with a career 113 ERA+ pitching in the brutal AL East. Of course, he’s rarely healthy; he missed 2009 with Tommy John surgery and is currently on the DL with elbow inflammation, though an MRI showed no structural damage and he’s expected back soon. His cost is sort of hard to pin down; talented and affordable pitchers don’t come cheap, but his injury history may hold the cost down, and he is rumored to be popping up in trade discussions. Additional bonus: could be paired with relievers Jason Frasor, Kevin Gregg, or Scott Downs, all of whom are rumored to be on the market.

Ben Sheets (4-8, 4.63)
Contract status: ~$5m remaining in 2010.

I consider Sheets pretty unlikely, since he’s expensive, a free agent at the end of the year, and not really having a fantastic season. That said, he’s certainly going to be a name that pops up a lot, so I’ll briefly mention him. Unlike Bannister, his FIP and xFIP are basically the same as his ERA, so there’s not a whole lot of luck going on here, and his K rate is lower than it’s been since 2003. Now, part of his stat line is fueled by back-t0-back disaster starts (8 and 9 ER) in the early part of the season; in 13 starts since then, he’s been much better, allowing a 3.72 ERA.

The one thing Sheets does have going for him is that he’s seemingly healthy again, as his 112.2 IP would top Clayton Kershaw by one out to lead the Dodger staff. Oakland’s 8.5 games out of first, and Texas only looks to pull further away now that they have Lee, so Sheets is probably available. I still don’t expect to see him in LA, but he’s older and was once an ace, so that’s the kind of thing that would play with the local media.

Ted Lilly (3-8, 4.08)
Contract status: ~$6m remaining in 2010.

Like Sheets, the former Dodger farmhand is on a losing team and in the last year of his contract. Also like Sheets, he isn’t pitching his best and he’s probably going to be too expensive for the Dodgers.

Still, he’s in his mid-30s and he once pitched for Joe Torre, so you’d have to think he’s exactly the type of pitcher the club is looking for. Lilly’s striking out fewer than he ever has, but he’s also displaying his excellent control (2.23 BB/9), though his declining fastball velocity (85.9 MPH, down from his peak of 89 and last year’s mark of 87.1) is worrisome. He’s become somewhat of a hot name on the market as probably the top lefty remaining now that Lee is gone, but his price tag and performance scare me off a bit.

Jake Westbrook (5-5, 4.75)
Contract status: ~$5m remaining in 2010.

Westbrook’s much the same as Sheets and Lilly, as a veteran free agent to be who’s having a mediocre year. He’s actually been an Indian since 2001, though much of that time has been injury-riddled. This might be one of those cases where his value is likely highest to his current team than it would be to anyone else, due to his status as a long-time veteran leader on what is a very young team. For the Dodgers, he’s a 5th starter at best, and that’s not really worth the outlay in money or prospects.

Besides, I’m absolutely terrified of trading with Cleveland.

Jeremy Guthrie (3-10, 4.77)
Contract status: ~$1m remaining in 2010. Team control for ’11 and ’12.

Here’s what scares me about Jeremy Guthrie, and ignore the W/L record, because the Orioles are horrible. This is his fourth full season in the bigs, and his K/9 rate has decreased every year, from 6.3 in 2007 to 4.6 this year. It’s not a good sign. That said, he has excellent control (2.8 career BB/9), and his 4.85 career FIP is more or less in line with what he’s doing this year.

That also doesn’t take into account that he’s been in the AL East, and remember, that means something more for an Oriole. When you say that about a Yankee pitcher, for example, they never have to face the Yankee lineup. Guthrie gets to face them all, and doesn’t even get the luxury of ever facing the impotent Baltimore crew – so you’d expect somewhat of a boost simply by moving to the big parks of the NL West. Plus, he’s under team control for the next two seasons at what would likely be a reasonable cost (he makes $3m this season).

Carlos Zambrano (3-6, 5.66)
Contract status: ~$45m through 2012, plus 2013 option based on contingencies Zambrano will never achieve.

I know. I know. You could come up with a thousand reasons why this would be a terrible idea, and you wouldn’t be wrong about any of them. But you’ve seen the other less-than-appealing names which are available, you know how thin the rotation looks for next year, and sometimes you have to look for different alternatives.

Obviously, this could only work under a very specific set of circumstances, namely that the Cubs pick up an enormous amount of his remaining salary -  say, $30m-$35m, meaning he costs the Dodgers under $5m per year. That’s probably not all that likely, but it’s also possible that his relationship with the Cubs has become so irreparably damaged that they’ll do anything to get rid of him – and his reputation is so bad that they couldn’t really expect a ton back.

The funny thing is, for all of the bad publicity around him, Zambrano’s really not having that bad of a year, or at least as bad as everyone thinks. His BB and HR rates are in line with his career numbers, and his K rate is actually the 2nd highest of his career. That ugly 5.66 ERA is largely inflated by a .374 BABIP, so his FIP is a more palatable 4.12 – or just about exactly what it was in 2006, when he went 16-7. This, despite being kicked to the bullpen and back.

I’m not saying it’s the best idea I’ve ever had, and I’m not saying I’m dying for it to happen. But the situation the Dodgers are in, they might need to take a leap of faith or two – if the conditions are right. It’s not like they haven’t found success with another supposed malcontent, Vicente Padilla.

Livan Hernandez (6-5, 3.37)
Contract status: ~400k remaining for 2010

Oh, if you hated Zambrano, you’re going to looooove this. Again, I’m not really advocating for him, but if the idea of acquiring a pitcher is not so much to get an ace, but to get someone more-or-less reliable for the back end to soak up innings without imploding or making you rely on Haeger or Monasterios, hear me out on this.

Hernandez may be kind of a joke, and the FIP doesn’t quite match the ERA. But he’s also put up at least 180 innings in every season since 1997, and his FIP has been below 5 in each of those years except for his 2007 stint in Arizona. People will look at his ugly ERA in 2008 and 2009, but just as he’s not as good as his ERA this year, he wasn’t as bad as that stat implied he was the last two years. (They just so happened to coincide with two unusually high BABIP numbers.)

He makes barely more than the minimum, and the Nationals couldn’t possibly ask for all that much in return. Besides, we’ve seen previous deals with Washington work out pretty well, right?

*******

No, I’m not enthused about all of these names. Do you really think I want to see Jeremy Guthrie, or that I’m happy I even have to consider Livan Hernandez? Of course not. We all just need to remember that the Dodgers are trapped within a lot of limits here. I don’t need to remind you of the payroll issues, but all of their top minor league chips are at least two years away, and there isn’t really anything they can move from the big club without creating a new hole to fill.

The top three starters for the playoffs, should they get there, are almost certainly going to be Kershaw, Kuroda, and Billingsley (unless Padilla continues his recent run, I suppose), and the way Kershaw’s been going, that’s not half bad. What they really need is someone to help them get there; someone who can provide depth in the back end and protection from injury. It’s not sexy, but it’s necessary.

Now tear me apart, you jackals.

NLDS Game 2: Carlos Zambrano Is Harvey Dent

On to Game 2, and I don’t want to demean Chad Billingsley here, but he’s not tonight’s story. Don’t get me wrong – Billingsley ascended to become the true ace of the staff that so many had predicted he would be, and he was even better in the second half than the first, going 7-2 with a 2.99 ERA. In fact, save for a lousy outing in Pittsburgh on September 17th, Billingsley would have gone nearly three months without allowing more than three earned runs in a game, dating back to July 8th vs. Atlanta. That’s impressive for anyone, much less a kid who’s just turned 24. Sure, there’s always the worry that the postseason will shake a young player, although he did throw two scoreless innings in relief against the Mets two years ago. But Billingsley has been remarkably consistent and reliable all year long – you know that he’s going to give the Dodgers a good chance to win tonight, especially since no Cub has really had any success against him. The only Cub who’s even seen him more than ten times is Jim Edmonds, who managed only one hit in those eleven tries.

No, now that the Cubs are down a game, the entire series hinges on the biggest question mark on either team, and that’s including all the health questions LA has about Furcal and Kent – what can you expect out of Carlos Zambrano? While you pretty much know what you’re going to get from Billingsley, you have no idea whether Zambrano is going to give the Dodgers offense no chance whatsoever or single-handedly torpedo the Cubs season. Just look at his game logs to see how schizophrenic this guy is. I mean, what can you say about a guy who threw a no-hitter on September 14th, but still had his ERA for the month end up at 7.08? In two of his five starts in August, he gave up just one earned run – but was so lousy in the other three, his ERA for the month still ended up at 7.43.

Just looking at his monthly totals, you can see how all-or-nothing he is. Before his two awful months to close out the year, his July ERA was 1.78, which is fantastic. But before that, his June ERA was an awful 5.68! And before that, his May ERA was 2.45. I don’t know how Cubs fans deal, because I’m getting infuriated with him just writing this post.

Fittingly, he had two starts against the Dodgers, and there’s no middle ground here. On May 28th in Chicago, he was masterful, allowing just one run and four hits over eight innings – although I must point out that the Dodger lineup that night included Juan Pierre, Luis Maza (remember him?) and Chin-Lung Hu, a far cry from their current replacements of Manny Ramirez, Casey Blake, and Rafael Furcal. Yet just over a week later on June 7th in Los Angeles, Zambrano got absolutely shelled, allowing 13 hits and 7 runs in 6.2 innings - including homers to Russell Martin and Matt Kemp.

In fact, Martin is one of the only Dodgers to have any career success against Zambrano, along with Andre Either. Martin’s got eight hits in thirteen at-bats for a glowing .615 average, and Ethier’s six for thirteen, which gets him a .462. Unfortunately, Zambrano’s dominated Kent, Pierre, and Furcal, holding all three of them below a .250 average.

But really, all that matter is which Zambrano shows up. Is it going to be the one who was just a walk short of a perfect game three weeks ago against Houston? Or the one who allowed 13 runs and 7 walks in 6.1 innings over 2 starts since?

Hey, at least the Chicago papers aren’t freaking out yet…

Chicago Sun-Times:

Uh-oh.

If this is what the rest of the Cubs’ postseason is going to look like, it’s going to be a short playoff run.

And a long century.

Chicago Tribune:

Not to put pressure on Carlos Zambrano, but the Cubs need to win Game 2 of their National League Division Series against the Dodgers late Thursday night, or it could be going on 101 years since the Cubs have won a World Series.

How about the national media, say, Dayn Perry of FOXsports.com?

To be sure, it’s far from over, but the Cubs have put themselves in an unenviable position. Since the Division Series was instituted, there have been 52 such best-of-five affairs, and teams that take the opening contest have won 35 of those 52 series. In other words, the team that wins Game 1 of the Division Series goes on to win the entire series more than two-thirds of the time. So in that regard, the Cubs are working against history. They’re also working against an opponent that’s much improved.

It’s such an odd feeling, this “success”, isn’t it? The importance of winning Game 1 simply cannot be overstated – this is now a must-win for Chicago, while the Dodgers know they go home no worse than tied. Game 2! Tonight!

- Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness msti-face.jpg