NEW YORK -- Well, at least now no one can say the Cubs haven't spent any money on their bullpen.
Now, the most expensive team in the National League has the most expensive setup man in baseball.
And at least no one can say that Cubs manager Lou Piniella has given up on his team.
|With the season not even three weeks old, Lou Piniella will now be handing the ball to Carlos Zambrano in the late innings. (US Presswire)|
By taking opening day starter Carlos Zambrano -- $18 million a year opening day starter Carlos Zambrano -- and moving him into the bullpen, Piniella is telling you all you need to know about where the Cubs stand 14 games into the season.
First, this isn't just a great team off to a slow start. It's a team talented enough to compete with the Cardinals, but with serious issues that need fixing right now.
Second, while the Cubs currently aren't hitting (they've scored one unearned run in two games in New York, and only six runs in their past four games), the bullpen was the problem that most needed a quick fix.
Third, the Cubs need to find a way to stay in contention until June or July, giving general manager Jim Hendry and the new owners a chance to help out with a midseason trade. With Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright starting this year the way they finished 2009, the Cubs can't help but be concerned that what's now a four-game deficit in the National League Central could become insurmountable before any help could arrive.
Something had to be done, and soon, and Piniella knew it.
Already this week, Piniella made smaller but still bold moves, asking Marlon Byrd to do something he hadn't done since 2006 (lead off) and asking Mike Fontenot to do something he had done only once since 2007 (play shortstop). All the while, he was thinking of ways to address the bullpen problem.
"I think I get paid for that," Piniella said. "Changing the lineup, that's commonplace. This is more of a significant move. It's not a panic move -- not at all. This makes all the sense in the world."
Yes, it makes sense, because the Cubs have Ted Lilly coming off the disabled list to take Zambrano's spot in the rotation, and because putting Zambrano in front of closer Carlos Marmol in the bullpen makes a much bigger impact than if Piniella had simply moved Carlos Silva or Tom Gorzelanny out there.
But even if it does make sense, it's still a stunner. When I posted the news on CBSSports.com on Wednesday afternoon, the first reaction from some Cubs fans was that I must have been mistaken, because there's no way it could be true.
"I have not found any other source spewing this nonsense," one fan wrote.
You would think Cubs fans would know by now that Piniella is willing to take a chance.
"His mind's always working," bench coach Alan Trammell said with admiration. "He's not afraid to go out of the box."
And he can recognize a problem that needs solving. Not that this problem was too hard to diagnose.
Through Tuesday, the Cubs had allowed 16 eighth-inning runs, the most in the majors. They had allowed 32 runs in the seventh and eighth combined, also the most in baseball.
"We've already lost three or four games in the eighth inning," Zambrano said.
There are other teams in baseball with bad bullpens. The Royals and Marlins have just as big a 'pen problem as the Cubs, and the Diamondbacks are there, too.
But Kansas City, Florida and Arizona have three of the 10 lowest payrolls in the game. It's no wonder they had no money to spend on finding a little relief.
The Cubs, meanwhile, are spending more than $146 million this season. Only the Yankees and Red Sox are ahead of them.
And yet they began the season with a low-rent -- and ultimately low-results -- bullpen.
How did that happen?
Well, for one thing, about one-third of the payroll goes to Zambrano, Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez. For another, Jeff Samardzija, who cost the Cubs $10 million out of Notre Dame, hasn't yet developed into an effective big league pitcher.
Add in that the sale of the team to the Ricketts family wasn't finalized until too late in the winter to allow any maneuverability, and spring injuries to Angel Guzman and Esmailin Caridad, and the Cubs ended up with a bullpen too full of kids and too short on dependable pitchers.
"If you're a high fastball-hitting team, you'll brutalize the Cubs bullpen," said one scout who watched the Cubs last week. "There's too many guys who don't have enough to get you out."
The Cubs spent a good part of the winter trying to trade for bullpen help. They spent a good part of spring training talking about trading for bullpen help.
But trading for relievers in March isn't easy, and if anything, trading for decent relievers in April or May is even tougher.
They needed to find a way to fix the bullpen before then, a way to buy some time until the market might open up, without seeing their season fall apart first.
"We're trying to stabilize things," Piniella said.
He told Zambrano the move is temporary, merely a short-term fix that gives Hendry time to find someone else. Zambrano told him that's fine, and then said he wants to be back in the rotation later this year.
"I told him I want to go back for the playoffs," Zambrano said.
The Cubs in the playoffs? It's no sure thing, but it's not nonsense.
And neither was the bold move Piniella made Wednesday.