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Marlins Acquire Carlos Zambrano for Chris Volstad

While I spent yesterday spending quality time with my girlfriend, the Marlins went out and completed their roster moves of the offseason by acquiring Carlos Zambrano from the Chicago Cubs in return for Chris Volstad. We discussed Volstad and his meager prospects earlier this offseason, and we certainly discussed the prospect of acquiring Zambrano to be the team's fifth starter, so this move should not surprise anyone.

A long time ago, Zambrano was a decent pitcher. He likely wasn't worth the contract he received, but the Jim Hendry Cubs were well known for overpaying talent and Zambrano was still talented, if not $18-million-per-season talented. But for the purposes of 2011, Zambrano needs to be nothing of the sort. The Cubs are sending all but $2.5 million of Zambrano's salary our way, meaning the Fish are essentially swapping Volstad and his team-control years for one season of a Zambrano flyer. Is that a good idea for the Fish?

What We're Getting

Here is Zambrano in a nutshell.

Zambrano, Year K% BB% ERA FIP Avg WAR
2011 15.9 8.8 4.82 4.59 0.7
2010 20.5 12.1 3.33 3.71 2.2
2009 20.7 10.6 3.77 3.61 3.5
2009-2011 19.1 10.5 3.99 3.96 6.4

It was not all that long ago that Zambrano was a pitcher on par with the likes of John Danks, Matt Garza, Wandy Rodriguez, or the other starters the Marlins had been previously looking at as trade options. In 2009, Zambrano was a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. In 2010, the follies of Lou Piniella and his Zambrano-to-the-bullpen foray ruined what would otherwise have been another decent season. Only in 2011 has Zambrano really fallen off the wagon in terms of performance.

What happened in 2011? Part of it was the obvious decline in strikeouts and walks; hitters were simply making more contact with Zambrano's pitches, and that is significant. But part of it was also a fluky-high home run rate. Compare the home run rates seen in 2011 with those seen in his previous three seasons and in his career.

Zambrano, Year HR/FB% HR/contacted ball
2011 11.3 4.0
2008-2010 6.8 2.4
Career through 2010 8.8 2.7

Is it possible that Zambrano simply lost his ability to suppress home runs? Sure, especially since he is 31 years old and that is not a surprising age for a pitcher decline. It is also possible that he simply had a bad season and that he is line for regression back closer to his old home run rates. Add on the fact that he will be leaving the friendly confines of Wrigley Field for our new spacious Marlins ballpark, and you have to figure Zambrano's primary method of success should return to normal.

At that point, what are we looking at as a pitcher? Given his career 3.98 FIP and his three-year ERA and FIP being almost identical, an ERA around 4.00 is not out of line for Zambrano in 2012. He should strike out and walk a few more guys than last season just based on regression, but it is the regression in home runs that should be most intriguing to Marlins fans. Depending on the run environment of the league, that could be worth around 2.2 to 2.7 Wins Above Replacement. Indeed, the FanGraphs fans projected Zambrano at a 4.12 ERA and 4.16 FIP, yielding a 1.9 WAR mark. All in all, expecting 2.0 WAR from him in 2012 sounds about right.

What Are We Losing?

In comparison, here is Chris Volstad in a nutshell:

Volstad, Year K% BB% ERA FIP Avg WAR
2011 16.3 6.8 4.89 4.32 0.7
2010 13.5 7.9 4.58 4.34 1.6
2009 15.7 8.7 5.21 5.26 -0.3
2009-2011 15.1 7.8 4.88 4.64 0.7*

You might notice something extremely interesting about Volstad in comparison to Zambrano. Take a look at the last line, encompassing Volstad's last three seasons. It bears a striking resemblance to Zambrano's worst season of his career in 2011. In other words, when we look at Volstad's last three seasons and deliver our best guess to his 2012 production, we get a season very similar to Zambrano's worst year. This means that Zambrano will almost unequivocally be better than Volstad in 2012. Volstad has the possibility of improvement, but as I've mentioned before, it is likely that he will never really recover from his problems with the long ball. Zambrano, on the other hand, has enough of a history with success at home run suppression that he is almost certain to regress closer to his career norms and thus outperform Volstad even if both of their strikeout numbers remain static from last season.

But what about the two other team-controlled seasons that Volstad had available to him. I've already voiced my opinions on how likely it would have been for Volstad to improve on his home run problems, but even that is not all that important a consideration. All that may actually matter in the 2012 season; if Volstad continued to underachieve in 2012, there would have been a very good chance that the Marlins would have non-tendered him as his price moved up to more than $4 million. Even if they did not, Volstad at $4 million holds very little surplus value, so it is not as if that 2013 season would have brought significant trade value.

Surplus Value Analysis

In return for giving up what is closer to two team-controlled years (2012 and 2013) rather than three, the Marlins received a projected one-win upgrade over their current staff. Given the team's win-now philosophy and their aggressive offseason stance, I am not surprised that the Fish decided to go with this platform, and for the most part I approve of the team's move. Let's consider it from a surplus value standpoint. Assume a projection of 3.5 wins over the next three years for Volstad versus a current two-win projection for Zambrano in 2012. Here is what Volstad's trade value would look like.

Volstad, Year WAR $ Value ($Mil) $ Salary ($Mil)
2012 1.0 4.5 2.6
2013 1.0 4.7 4
2014 1.5 7.5 6
Total 3.5 16.7 12.6

This setup yields just about $4 million in trade value. Compare that with Zambrano's two-win projection, valued at $9 million in free agent value. The Marlins are paying him $2.5 million this season, yielding a surplus of $6.5 million. In other words, the Fish are likely to come out on top by just a tad on this trade, but overall the move was pretty even. As commenters have said in the initial FanShot, this trade came out as even as it could be.