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Bauman: Cubs to be commended

Bauman: Cubs to be commended

As we speak, there are 29 Major League teams that do not have a guy with a $91.5 million contract pitching in a setup role. But it could be that the Chicago Cubs are, in this regard, the cutting edge, the wave of the future.

The Cubs have sent their former ace, Carlos Zambrano, to the bullpen. There are other ways to phrase this transaction. You could say that Zambrano has been "exiled" to the bullpen. You could say that Zambrano has been "demoted" to the bullpen. As long as you don't say that Zambrano has been "promoted" to the bullpen, you have captured the essence of this action. This is not a lateral move, which is why you don't see setup men with $91.5 million deals.

Ted Lilly's return from the disabled list this weekend will lead, in theory, to overcrowding in the Cubs' rotation. The truth is, the Cubs have four starters who have pitched better than Zambrano in this young season. In this limited way, the move contains a morsel of logic.

Zambrano has not been all that catastrophic. He is 1-2 with a 7.45 ERA in four starts. His first start was a disaster, but two of his last three outings have met the puny but widely used standard of "quality starts."

But Ryan Dempster, Randy Wells, Tom Gorzelanny and -- take a deep breath -- Carlos Silva have all performed better in the admittedly small sample sizes represented by the first few weeks of the 2010 season. In fact, the rotation once again appears to be the strength of a Cubs team that has notable shortcomings elsewhere.

One of those problem areas has certainly been the bullpen, so Big Z could be seen as riding to the rescue. And this is largely how the Cubs have presented his move. You cannot blame them for that.

"I talked to Carlos and told him we really needed him in the bullpen and that we felt he could do a nice job for us," manager Lou Piniella said. "He said he'd do what's best for the team. I'm very appreciative. He talked about maturing [this year]. This proves it to me."

"Lou called me into the office and asked me if I wanted to go to the bullpen and help this team in the seventh and eighth innings," Zambrano said. "I said, 'Whatever you want me to do, I'm here for this team, and I'm here to help this team. If you want me to go to the bullpen, I'll go. If you want me in the rotation, I will.' "

Zambrano has not pitched in relief since 2002, and the Cubs did not envision him as a reliever again until very, very recently. Had they seen him as a right-handed setup man, he would not be receiving $91.5 million over five years.

Zambrano, 28, is being paid to be the Cubs' ace. This reassignment may reflect the fact that they need help in the bullpen, but it also reflects the fact that Zambrano has not consistently performed up to either the Cubs' expectations or the size of his contract.

The move is publicly regarded by all the relevant parties as temporary. And you can see that. At some point, somebody else in the rotation will become either ineffective or achy, and Zambrano will be given another shot to regain his normal place and status.

In the meantime, give the Cubs this much credit: Off to a slow start, they have not responded with a conventional move. Putting Zambrano in the bullpen is as far off the beaten path as you can get in late April. The Cubs' refusal to sit passively and play what has been a losing hand in the first two weeks of the season is admirable in its own way.

On the other hand, Zambrano's transfer to the bullpen is a result of his overall performance coming up distinctly short. If he were pitching like Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay or Ubaldo Jimenez, he would still be working in the rotation, appearing every fifth game, being Big Z, The Man, the ace.

But for the moment, at least, he will be Carlos Zambrano, setup guy. By assigning him and his contract to the 'pen, the Cubs are making history. It is not the preferred kind of history, but it is history nonetheless.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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