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Zambrano move shows Cubs are desperate

Leaders frequently invoke the phrase, "Desperate times lead to desperate measures," in times of urgency.

The philosophy, however, rarely works for major-league teams.

The Cubs' 5-9 start did not qualify as "desperate times," not with more than nine-tenths of the season remaining.

But the team's shifting of right-hander Carlos Zambrano to the bullpen certainly qualifies as a desperate measure.

Club officials insist that for now, the move is the best and only way for the Cubs to solve their setup void.

Perhaps, and if Zambrano forms, say, a successful three-month bridge to a quality trade acquisition, the team's plan actually might work.

While such a trade is not yet within reach, the Cubs are relatively deep in starting pitching. A team in need of a starter could offer a reliever for Cubs lefty Tom Gorzelanny, who is under club control through 2012.

Still, I wonder.

I wonder about the potential impact on Zambrano's arm - pitching back-to-back days, moving from the rotation to the bullpen and, at some point, probably back to the rotation again. If Big Z gets hurt, the Cubs can forget about ever trading him.

I wonder if Zambrano, one of the game's most excitable performers, will throw enough strikes as a reliever.

Finally, I wonder why Lou Piniella, one of the game's highest-paid managers, could not figure out a different solution.

The Cubs say that Piniella lacked alternatives.

Left-hander John Grabow, the leading candidate to pitch the eighth inning, is off to a slow start. Right-handers Angel Guzman and Esmailin Caridad are out with injuries, Guzman for the season.

Righty Carlos Silva, 2-0 with a 0.95 ERA in his first three starts, is incapable of pitching in relief. Gorzelanny also is better suited to start, and besides, the Cubs already have three lefties in their bullpen.

So, by process of elimination, the Cubs' decision came down to Zambrano, Ryan Dempster or Randy Wells.

Dempster and Wells are pitching better than Zambrano.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how a $17.875 million setup man was born.

Piniella, like most managers, prefers veteran relievers. A scout told me earlier this week that the entire right side of the Cubs' bullpen, with the exception of closer Carlos Marmol, belonged in the minor leagues.

So, as much as this decision smacked of Piniella Panic, general manager Jim Hendry endorsed and helped mastermind the move, calling it, "the right thing for the Cubs."

Hendry never intended to make a reliever out of Zambrano when he guaranteed him $91.5 million for five years on Aug. 17, 2007. But Zambrano since then has pitched more like a mid-rotation starter than an ace, going 28-19 with a 4.06 ERA in 70 starts.

At this point, his salary is all but a sunk cost. The way the Cubs see it, if they keep Zambrano in the rotation simply to justify his salary of nearly $18 million, they could jeopardize their $140 million club.

Piniella, in the last year of his contract, is impulsive even when operating with greater job security. Hendry, too, is under pressure because of the Cubs' change in ownership, even though he is signed through 2012.

Under different circumstances, would the Cubs' leadership duo have made the same decision? Perhaps, but the team has not won the World Series since 1903. Both Piniella and Hendry are extremely competitive.

I get it, but the Cubs' vision, if you want to call it that, is rather myopic. Silva and Gorzelanny hardly are locks to continue their early-season success. Two right-handed prospects, Andrew Cashner and Jay Jackson, could contribute in the second half as either starters or relievers. But I would be shocked if the Cubs did not need Zambrano as a starter again very soon.

It comes down to simple math -- a 200-inning starter is more valuable than a 70-inning reliever. If Zambrano is more effective in the bullpen, so be it. But as maddening as Big Z can be, the Cubs are giving up on him after only four starts.

Long-term, the Cubs' rotation would be best if it included Zambrano along with Dempster, Wells and left-hander Ted Lilly, who is coming off the disabled list Saturday.

Hendry will just need to keep working the phones.

A trade is the only way out.

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