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.