Victor Zambrano, was a very average major league pitcher. However, he was thought to be a lot worse.
He was signed by the Rays as a minor league free agent in 1996, approximately a month after being released by the New York Yankees. He was converted from shortstop to a pitcher by the Rays due to his strong arm. Pitching primarily as a reliever, he moved up through the system fairly quickly, reaching AAA by 2000. Zambrano had a good arm, striking out roughly a batter per inning, but he also had control issues, as he would walk more than 4 batters per inning. He also allowed over a hit per inning, showing that his lower ERA totals were probably unsustainable.
Regardless, the Rays were in love with his stuff, particularly his great changeup. He appeared to have put everything together in 2001 as the closer for Durham, putting together a 1-2 record with a 2.08 ERA in 29 games. Most importantly, he only gave up 26 hits and 12 walks in 30.1 innings while striking out 29 batters. Promoted to the Rays, he made his debut on June 21. In his rookie season, he appeared in 36 games, putting together a 6-2 record with a 3.16 ERA. Over his 51.1 innings, he only permited 38 hits and walked only 18, while striking out 58 batters.
That would be the pinnacle for Zambrano. He pitched well in AAA to start the 2002 season, finally reaching the majors for good. He split his time between starting and relieving, appearing in 42 games with 11 starts. The control issues began to crop up again, as in his 114 innings pitched, he walked 68 batters and gave up 120 hits. Most alarming, however, was his decreasing strikeout rate, as he only struck out 73 batters. He managed to finish with an 8-8 record, despite a 5.53 ERA.
2003 found Zambrano primarily as a starter, and his control continued to worsen. He ended the year with a 12-10 record, and lowered his ERA to 4.21. However, the positives ended there, as he ended up with a pitching Triple Crown that few would covet, leading the American League in walks (106), wild pitches (15), and hit batters (20). He did give up less than a hit per inning, and struck out 132 batters, helping to minimize the damage.
The 2004 season was much of the same. By July 30, he had a 9-7 record, with an almost exactly league average ERA of 4.43. He was also leading the league in walks, hit batsmen, and wild pitches again, when he was sent to the Mets for top pitching prospect Scott Kazmir. Zambrano actually pitched well for the Mets in the three games he played, going 2-0 with a 3.86 ERA, before missing the last two months of the season with an elbow injury.
In 2005, Zambrano continued his tightrope act, to the tune of a 7-12 record and a 4.17 ERA. His control improved, but his strikeout rate declined as a result of the injury the previous year. In 2006, Zambrano sprinted off the mound just 1.1 innings into his fifth start of the year, holding his elbow. Diagnosed with a torn flexor tendon, it was also discovered that he had a torn elbow ligament as well during the surgery. He underwent Tommy John surgery, effectively ending his major league career.
Zambrano bounced around the minors and the Mexican league afterward, making his final major league appearances in the 2007 season for the Blue Jays and the Orioles. Even if the trade did not work out as anticipated for the Mets, was the trade really as much of a success for the Rays as people thought? Kazmir was a top prospect with a live arm, leading the American League in strikeouts in 2007 and making two All-Star teams (2006 and 2008). However, he had control problems of his own, and has completely flamed out by age 27. The Mets felt that Zambrano was not as bad a pitcher as people felt, and that Kazmir was overrated. In the end, the Mets may have been correct.
Victor Zambrano provided the Rays with their second true ace starter, after Rolando Arroyo in 1998. While he was never great, he also was not as bad as people remember him to be. He was simply a serviceable back of the rotation pitcher, who the Rays managed to flip at the peak of his value.