K-Rod: Zambrano could face tough road
Mets closer says adjustment for Cubs ace won't be easy
Tired of walking a tightrope with a shaky bullpen that blew four of its first seven save opportunities, was charged with six losses and had an inflated earned run average of 6.14 through 15 games, Chicago Cubs manager Lou Piniella pulled the emergency cord.
Carlos Zambrano, ace of the Cubs staff, the team's Opening Day starter for the last six seasons and owner of a 2008 no-hitter, is now in the bullpen. So far he's allowed an earned run on three hits over three innings in two appearances.
"I will do whatever is best for the team," Zambrano said.
But is it best for Zambrano? Reliever Francisco Rodriguez of the New York Mets, equipped with five straight 30-save seasons and more saves than any other reliever in baseball since 2005, wondered about that when the Cubs visited the Mets last week.
"Carlos is in the bullpen?" K-Rod said when he heard the news. "If he asked me about it, I'd tell him it's not going to be that easy. The preparation is so different."
It's not like Zambrano will need a road map to find the bullpen. He has been there before. He split roles between starting and relieving during his rookie season, making 32 appearances in 2002, half of them out of the bullpen. Rodriguez shrugged off that experience factor.
"When did he do it?" the Mets closer said. "Eight, nine years ago? He probably doesn't even remember it. He's used to being a starter. Relieving. It's not the same.
"He has to be available every day. That will be tough for him, on his body and on his head. As a starter, he pitches, then he gets four days off to get ready for his next game. Now he's a reliever. He could be throwing every day. Can he do that?"
Then there is the mental side of relieving.
"If he strikes out the side yesterday, that's in the past," Rodriguez said. "He's got to be ready today. And if he blows a save yesterday, he's got to forget about it and get it done today. That's hard to do.
"And what happens when they decide to move him back to the rotation. They'll have to stretch him out to make the switch back.
"Carlos is a reliever? That's like telling me I'm going to be a starter."
That's unlikely to happen because K-Rod is the cornerstone closer of a Mets bullpen that often has its own issues. The last time he started was in 2001, when he was at Class A Rancho Cucumonga, a pitching lifetime ago.
Zambrano is not exactly thrilled about the change in roles, but he is willing to try it. He was primarily a reliever when he came to the Majors in 2001 and spent the first half of the 2002 season in the Chicago bullpen, throwing 15 1/3 innings over 16 games with a 3.52 ERA. He moved into the starting rotation for the second half of that season and has been there ever since.
He is proud of his role as the staff ace but had struggled some this season, going 1-1 with an inflated 9.45 ERA.
When Piniella first approached Zambrano about moving to the bullpen, the manager said it was not a reflection on how his ace has pitched this season. "He's throwing the ball well," Piniella said.
Zambrano's move was a result of Ted Lilly['s return] from the disabled list, leaving the starting rotation a bit crowded. The solution was an attempt to upgrade the bullpen. In a way, the mercurial Zambrano was intrigued by the move.
"I don't want to relieve, but I will go out there and give it my best," he said. "I can be good. I can be great. It's up to me, the challenge, and it's up to what I put in my mind and how I go there. I can be the ace in the eighth inning. Why not?"
Piniella hopes so.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.