On the mound Cubs righthander Carlos Zambrano is a yo-yo of emotions, prone to outbursts of exuberance or rage from one pitch to the next. "Every pitcher deals with emotion differently," says Chicago catcher Michael Barrett. "Some keep it in, some let it out. Carlos lets it explode out, and that's what makes him such an intimidator out there. That and his 95-mph fastball."
With his menacing presence and two nearly unhittable pitches, the hulking 6'5", 255-pound Zambrano has, at 23, become the Cubs' most overpowering pitcher. When Mark Prior and Kerry Wood were derailed by injury in 2004--Prior missed the first two months with elbow tendinitis, Wood another two with a strained right triceps--Zambrano became the de facto ace of the rotation, going 16--8 with a 2.75 ERA and 188 strikeouts in 31 starts. Virtuoso performances by the rambunctious righty at Wrigley Field, where he was 10--2 with a 2.38 ERA last season, have become as standard at the old ballpark as celebrity cameos during the seventh-inning stretch.
"He doesn't get the attention he deserves because his name isn't Prior or Wood, but we all know what he means to this team," says lefthanded reliever Mike Remlinger.
Zambrano, whose arsenal features a filthy sinking fastball and a hard slider, was one of only three players in the majors to average more than 110 pitches per start last year. The native of Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, is convinced he'll be even better in '05. "Every year I get stronger," he says. "Two years ago I learned how to get through a full season. Last year I learned how important it is for a big guy like me to stay in shape. This year I need to learn how to control my emotions more and stay focused."
Zambrano's importance will be magnified this season if Prior and Wood continue to struggle with injuries. This spring Prior, 24, was shut down for three weeks because of right-elbow inflammation, and Wood, 27, has been dealing with shoulder bursitis and back pain.
As worrisome as the state of the rotation is, Cubs fans should save their Dramamine for the late innings, when Chicago will have to count on a questionable bullpen. General manager Jim Hendry failed to land a closer in the off-season, and last week the team's best option, righthander Joe Borowski, broke his right wrist; he'll be out at least a month. The Cubs will most likely turn to LaTroy Hawkins, who gave up the ninth-inning, three-run, game-tying homer in a late-September loss to the Mets that sent Chicago, then the NL wild-card leader, into a 2--7 tailspin costing the team a postseason appearance.
On offense the Cubs hope they're no longer the clunky, one-dimensional team that for years has relied on the long ball. Chicago clubbed a league-leading 235 home runs in '04--the most in franchise history--but finished seventh in the NL in runs and 11th in on-base percentage. They lose a combined 74 dingers from last season with the departures of rightfielder Sammy Sosa, who was traded to Baltimore, and leftfielder Moises Alou, a free agent who signed with the Giants. "We'll miss their sock," says manager Dusty Baker, "but we're in a better position to create runs. As far as one-run decisions go, last year was the worst year I've had since I've been managing."
Indeed, the Cubs were 19--30 in one-run games, but they should be in better position to win close ones with the addition of fleet-footed utilityman Jerry Hairston Jr., acquired in the Sosa trade, and the continuing improvement of leadoff hitter and centerfielder Corey Patterson. Hairston is exactly what the Chicago lineup needs: a patient hitter with wheels. Patterson, meanwhile, slugged 24 homers last season but knows the important numbers were his puny .320 on-base percentage and 168 strikeouts. "This spring I've been working on moving the ball around better, hitting the ball the other way and hitting more line drives," Patterson says. "I know I have to be more consistent, and I think I have a better understanding of how to accomplish that."
Though the clubhouse has a different feel to it without the salsa music blaring from Sosa's boombox, the story in Chicago hasn't changed: as the starting pitching goes, so go the Cubs. Zambrano knows what this means. "The team's counting on another big season from me," he says, "and I'm ready to step up again." --A.C.
The Cubs are shooting for their third straight winning season, which would be their best such run since they had six in a row from 1967 through '72.
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Cubs
"WITH PITCHING like they have, they're always going to be very dangerous. I don't think they're going to rush Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. With Carlos Zambrano and Greg Maddux pitching behind them, they can afford to wait. Zambrano has looked unhittable this spring, throwing 96 to 97 mph. Hitters haven't had a chance.... It looks like Joe Borowski was in line for the closer's job, but he fractured his wrist and will be out at least until May. He just isn't the kind of power pitcher you'd like at the back of the bullpen. There's been talk of Ryan Dempster as the closer, but he'll be used as a fifth starter. Dempster has looked sharp.... Corey Patterson still doesn't know what kind of player he wants to be. He's a little man with a big man's swing, and I think he'd do better outside the leadoff spot, where he can swing away and do his thing.... Having lost Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou, Dusty Baker will have his hands full trying to manufacture enough runs. They need Nomar Garciaparra to hit 30 to 35 homers, and this spring he's looked terrific."
projected roster with 2004 statistics
JEROMY BURNITZ [New acquisition]
JERRY HAIRSTON JR. [New acquisition]
HENRY BLANCO [New acquisition]
3rd in NL Central
third season with Chicago
RH LaTroy Hawkins
LH Mike Remlinger
RH Jon Leicester
New acquisition (R) Rookie B-T: Bats-throws IPS: Innings pitched per start WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 69)
Passionate and powerful, Zambrano has emerged as the most reliable ace in a rotation full of them.
DAVID E. KLUTHO