Chicago Cubs: Carlos Zambrano to pitch in Venezuelan winter league

Carlos Zambrano hasn’t appeared in an MLB game in nearly five years, but the former Chicago Cubs hurler is planning to pitch in Venezuelan winter ball. Could it lead to something more?

Carlos Zambrano last pitched in a major league game in 2012, and he remained in an MLB organization until a year later. It’s been a while, but the former Chicago Cubs hurler reportedly plans to pitch again in the winter league in his native Venezuela, according to Bruce Levine of 670 The Score.

“Big Z”, who just threw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field on Monday, rose to prominence as one of the Cubs’ best pitchers of the early and mid 2000s, becoming as well known for his fiery demeanor as his on-field performance. The right-hander finished in the top five of the National League Cy Young voting three times, in 2004, 2006 and 2007.

Zambrano’s best season arguably came in 2004, when he posted a career-high 160 ERA+. He collected 16 wins that year to go along with a 2.75 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 2.32 K/BB ratio. The individual highlight of Zambrano’s 12-year career? Surely the no-hitter he tossed in September 2008 against the Houston Astros, the first by a Cubs pitcher since Milt Pappas in 1972. The Cubs had endured the longest drought between franchise no-hitters until Zambrano snapped the streak.

Another skid Zambrano hoped to end while with the Cubs was that mythical championship drought. The Cubs made the postseason three times during Zambrano’s tenure with the club, but failed to advanced beyond the NLCS. The curse was, of course, broken last year after 108 seasons of futility.

From 2002 to 2010, Zambrano was a steady presence in the Cubs rotation. He managed a 115-72 record, 3.44 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and 1.89 K/BB over that span. At his best, he was an absolute workhorse as well, averaging 215 innings per season between 2003 and 2007.

He could also swing the bat much better than most pitchers. The switch-hitting Zambrano slashed .238/.248/.388 with 24 home runs and 71 RBI in 744 career plate appearances, earning three Silver Slugger awards in the process. Not many pitchers have been legitimate pinch-hitting options, but Zambrano was one, getting the call off the bench 20 times in his career.

And Big Z was always entertaining to watch, whether for his pitching exploits or otherwise.

There is no guarantee that Zambrano playing Venezuelan winter ball will lead to a potential MLB comeback, nor that he is even interested in such a thing. But Zambrano was only 31 when he pitched in his last big league game. He is now nearly 36, older but by no means ancient in baseball terms. It certainly wouldn’t be any more of a stretch than a 41-year-old Eric Gagne trying to give it another go. (The former Dodgers closer did just end his return bid, though.)

If Zambrano pitches well and feels good his winter league outings, he could very well generate some interest among MLB teams. Organizations aren’t afraid to hand out minor league contracts, and name recognition can go a long way. With some potential rotation-related question marks, perhaps even his old club would give him a call.

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