Cubs missed big on Zambrano, Bradley

The Chicago Cubs have basically announced that they can’t stand having Carlos Zambrano around any longer — even though it was four years ago (almost to the day) that they felt strongly enough about his character and ability to grant him a $91.5 million contract extension.

Cubs right-hander Ryan Dempster told the Chicago Tribune:

“He was provided a great opportunity to be part of a really great organization with a lot of really good guys. It just didn’t seem to make him happy — anything. Hopefully this is a little bit of a wake-up call for him, and he’ll realize how good of a gig you have. … Sometimes you’ve just got to look in the mirror and realize that maybe the biggest part of the problem is yourself.”

But Dempster didn’t make those remarks about Zambrano over the weekend. They came from a 2009 Tribune story about another misbehaving millionaire: troubled outfielder Milton Bradley. But the words are as relevant now as they were then. And that’s why Cubs fans are well within their rights to throw a (Zambrano-esque) tantrum over the state of their team.

Bradley was dealt to Seattle after the first season of a $30 million deal. Now, in what would have been the final year of his contract, he’s out of baseball. So, the Cubs spent $121.5 million on two players who failed to meet on-field expectations while torpedoing clubhouse decorum in their spare time.

The Cubs’ biggest problem is that they don’t have a franchise player, a Dustin Pedroia or Jose Bautista type. They haven’t since 2003 — the last season of Sammy Sosa’s prime, real or imagined. General manager Jim Hendry, capable in other areas, has failed in the pursuit of acquiring superstars with the moxie and talent to thrive at the pressurized (and occasionally unfriendly) Wrigley Field. Starlin Castro, 21, might become one someday. He hasn’t yet.

In baseball, when a star makes a certain amount of money, he ceases being one of the 25 players. He becomes one of Your Guys — a man expected to produce for three hours every day while setting a good example during the other 21. He doesn’t have to give a Knute Rockne speech before batting practice. He does need to be accountable. It’s an important job. Others in the organization — minor leaguers, major leaguers — see the paycheck and status and say, “If I act like him, I’ll be rewarded, too.”

The benchmark is inexact, but I would argue that $30 million is a fair number. Not including Bradley, the Cubs began the year with five such players: Alfonso Soriano, Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez, Dempster, and Kosuke Fukudome, who was recently traded to the Indians.

None of them made the All-Star team in 2011.

None of them made the All-Star team in 2010.

None of them made the All-Star team in 2009.

None of them can be called a cornerstone player.

… Soriano signed with the Cubs for superstar money: $136 million over eight years. He plays a run-producing position. Yet, he has never finished a season in Chicago with 80 or more RBI.

… Ramirez was very good over the first two seasons of his big contract but hasn’t been a force since 2008. He was a major disappointment during the first-round playoff exits in ’07 and ’08.

… Dempster signed his new contract after the 2008 season. His ERA, ERA+ and WHIP have been going in the wrong direction ever since.

… Fukudome was famous in Chicago for a sublime first half in 2008 — and little else over the following three seasons. He never turned into the dynamic offensive player he was supposed to be. He was awful during his one trip to the postseason.

At least Soriano, Ramirez, Dempster and Fukudome didn’t humiliate themselves or the organization. The same can’t be said for Zambrano. He has become a sorry sideshow of his own creation. And the worst part is the Cubs should have seen this coming.

Zambrano joined the organization as an amateur free agent in 1997, when Hendry was the club’s scouting director. They can’t use the Bradley excuse: We didn’t draft him. We didn’t develop him. We didn’t know.

Zambrano’s reputation for erratic behavior was well-established before he signed his mega-deal. In June 2007, he bloodied the lip of his own catcher, Michael Barrett, during a fight that began in the Cubs dugout and continued into the clubhouse. Two months later, the team gave him nearly $100 million. What kind of message did that send? It’s OK to cuff your teammate, as long as you’re punching out the other team?

So while Zambrano told the Associated Press that he had a “fresh mind” after signing the extension, it didn’t last. Yes, he threw a no-hitter in 2008, but that’s not what comes to mind when you hear his name. You think about him attacking the Gatorade machine with the baseball bat (on live television). You think about him pitching a fit at Derrek Lee in the dugout (again, on live television). You think about him declaring the anger management issues a thing of the past, when in fact they were not.

If Zambrano didn’t truly reform, there was going to come an inflection point when his negative antics outstripped his positive contributions. That moment came Friday, when he surrendered five home runs, earned an ejection for throwing purpose pitches, cleaned out his locker, and left word that he planned to retire.

Much to the Cubs’ dismay, Zambrano’s agent says Big Z still wants to pitch. The Cubs, rightfully indignant, placed Zambrano on the disqualified list for 30 days without pay, although an expected grievance by the players’ union could shorten the term.

Hendry shouldn’t have to answer for Zambrano’s outrageous conduct, but the GM is responsible for the fact that he is a Chicago Cub, and a well-compensated one at that.

As with Bradley, Hendry is caught in a jagged vise of his own creation: He handed millions of dollars to a combustible character. And he didn’t come close to getting a fair return, in victories or professionalism.

At this point, there is only so much the Cubs can do. Either the suspension will be upheld, or it won’t. To me, though, that is far less intriguing than what happens the next time Hendry asks ownership for the cash to sign a “franchise player.”