Carlos Zambrano (Trading Card DB)

Carlos Zambrano

This article was written by Tim Odzer

Carlos Zambrano (Trading Card DB)During the 2000s, Carlos Zambrano was a mainstay at the top of the Chicago Cubs’ rotation. Though lacking the renown of teammates like Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, and Sammy Sosa, the three-time All-Star led the Cubs in wins above replacement during the first decade of the new millennium.

Nicknamed El Toro (Spanish for bull) and Big Z, the 6-foot-4, 275-pound Venezuelan right-hander was a feisty and temperamental competitor. His behavioral antics were infamous, as Zambrano again and again intentionally threw at opposing players, jawed with umpires, and fought with his teammates. But Zambrano’s temper tantrums overshadowed his deep faith. He was a devout Christian who credited all his good fortune to God and became a preacher after his playing days ended.

Carlos Alberto Zambrano Motes was born on June 1, 1981, in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. He was the fifth of seven Zambrano boys born to Saulo and Nora. Zambrano comes from the Cumboto II neighborhood, a small and poor community, where his father worked as a street vendor. The government provided Zambrano’s family with a small parcel of land that included a small three-bedroom home.1 Even without material comforts, Zambrano spoke positively of his childhood, saying: “We were poor but we were happy. We had things more important than money. We had love.”2

Growing up, Zambrano’s life revolved around the neighborhood, the church, and the ballfield. Zambrano received Christian teachings at home and at Sunday school.3 And he played soccer and baseball. As a teenager, he joined Carisma, his first baseball team. His pitching there caught the eye of a local pitching coach, Julio Figueroa.4 Figueroa became Zambrano’s pitching coach and trainer.

As a teenager, Zambrano joined the Royal Rangers youth group at his church.5 There, he met his wife, Ismary. At first, Ismary did not like him.6 But through retreats sponsored by the Royal Rangers, Ismary and Zambrano got to know each other and started dating.

In 1997 Zambrano received an opportunity to throw for scouts from the Chicago Cubs. But the chief scout in the area did not see Zambrano pitch at first, and the underling sent to scout Zambrano was not impressed.7 Then Zambrano threw for the Blue Jays, Marlins, and Diamondbacks.8 Around that time, the chief scout set up Zambrano for a second tryout with the Cubs. Impressed, the chief scout invited Zambrano to train for a month at the Cubs academy.9 While Zambrano was at the academy, the head Latin America scout for the Cubs saw him throw and decided to sign him.10

Though Zambrano was heading to the United States, he also wanted to continue his relationship with Ismary. He asked her father if he could marry her. The father approved so long as he respected and visited her.11

Zambrano left for the United States in July of 1997. In 1998 he appeared in his first professional games as a member of the Cubs’ Rookie ball affiliate in Mesa, Arizona. The next season Zambrano went 13-7 with a 4.17 ERA for the Cubs’ Class-A team in Lansing, Michigan. After a strong start to the 2000 campaign with Double-A West Tennessee, Zambrano was promoted to Triple-A Iowa. In Triple A, Zambrano worked as a reliever and posted a 3.97 ERA. Ismary and Zambrano married at the end of the 2000 season. It appears the impetus for the wedding was a leg injury Zambrano suffered during the season. “[The injury] was what we needed to get married,” she said. “He needed me.”12

Newly wed, Zambrano began the 2001 season in the rotation at Iowa. On August 20, 2001, the Cubs summoned him to the majors to pitch the second game of a doubleheader against the Milwaukee Brewers. Only 20 years old, Zambrano arrived in Chicago having gone 9-4 with a 3.98 ERA for Iowa. Through the first three innings, he did not allow a hit. But in the fourth, the floodgates opened. He lost the game 10-2.

After his start Zambrano was sent back to Iowa, but returned to the majors on September 9. During his second stint in the big leagues, Zambrano pitched exclusively out of the bullpen. He made his first relief appearance on September 19 in Cincinnati, working a scoreless frame, and picked up his first win on September 21 in Houston.

Zambrano began the 2002 season in Iowa but was quickly called up to replace the injured Kyle Farnsworth on April 11. For the first part of the season, Zambrano pitched out of the Cubs’ bullpen. But he entered the rotation in place of Jason Bere on July 1 against Florida.13 Zambrano pitched decently, allowing two earned runs in 4⅔ innings. He remained in the rotation the remainder of 2002. Zambrano’s best start of the season came on September 4 against the Brewers. He pitched eight shutout innings, striking out six. He also doubled for his first major-league hit. After arriving at second, Zambrano looked to the sky and thanked God. “For giving me the ability to play baseball and for giving me a good life and my arm,” he said after the game.14

In 2003 Zambrano stayed in the Cubs’ rotation for the entire season and emerged as a top-of-the-rotation starter. He particularly excelled in the season’s second half as the Cubs battled with St. Louis and Houston for the division title, going 7-3 with three complete games and a 2.51 ERA. On August 12 Zambrano shut out Houston, allowing only five hits and striking out 10 in a 3-0 Cubs victory. On August 22 against Arizona, he flirted with a no-hitter, throwing only 93 pitches in a complete-game effort as the Cubs won 4-1. Zambrano also drew the ire of Barry Bonds in 2003. In a game on July 31, Zambrano retired Bonds with the bases loaded. Ecstatic, Zambrano pumped his fists in exaggerated fashion while staring back at Bonds. “I didn’t see it,” said Bonds. “But that kid will respect me. He’ll learn fast.” Zambrano shrugged it off, saying, “It was a big out.”15

The Cubs won the NL Central Division championship on the final weekend of the season. In the 2003 postseason, the Cubs first squared off against the 101-win Atlanta Braves in the Division Series. After the Cubs won Game One, Zambrano received the start in Game Two. He gave up three runs in 5⅔ innings as the Cubs lost, 5-3. The teams split the next two games, setting up a decisive Game Five in Atlanta. Behind Kerry Wood’s eight strong innings, the Cubs won 5-1 and advanced to the National League Championship Series.

Zambrano started Game One against the Florida Marlins. He turned in a shaky performance. The Marlins tagged him for three home runs in a five-run third as the Cubs lost 9-8. After the game, Zambrano promised to adjust for his next start against the Marlins.16 The Cubs won the next three games and needed one win to advance to the World Series for the first time since 1945. Starting Game Five, Zambrano could be a hero. Facing off against Josh Beckett, he pitched well for five innings, allowing only a fifth-inning two-run home run by Mike Lowell. Beckett was better, pitching a shutout. “Carlos threw the ball well, but it didn’t matter – we got shut out,” Cubs manager Dusty Baker said.17 It turned out to be Zambrano’s final start of the season. The Cubs dropped the final two games to the Marlins.

Coming into 2004, the Cubs were projected to be among the best teams in baseball. After Greg Maddux was added to the rotation, Zambrano was slotted in as the fourth starter. Zambrano set a goal of winning 15 or 16 games.18 And he achieved it, performing the best in a rotation that included Maddux, Wood, and Prior. It started with a strong start to the season, as Zambrano went seven innings and allowed Atlanta only one run. On May 7 Zambrano pitched a two-hitter against the Colorado Rockies, striking out five and inducing 19 groundball outs. “This kid is electric. He overpowered us today,” said Colorado manager Clint Hurdle.19 Zambrano was selected for his first All-Star team after posting a 2.61 ERA in the first half. During the game in Houston, Zambrano pitched one inning, allowing one run via a walk to David Ortiz and a triple by Alex Rodriguez.

Despite the high hopes coming into the season, the Cubs faltered in the second half and missed the playoffs. Zambrano’s antics made attention during a game against the St. Louis Cardinals on July 19. He hit St. Louis center fielder Jim Edmonds with a pitch in the first. Edmonds homered in the fourth and admired the flight of the ball, angering Zambrano, who told him to run the bases and stop being cocky.20 After Zambrano struck out Edmonds in the sixth, he wagged his finger at him. With the game tied, 4-4, in the eighth, Zambrano gave up a tiebreaking home run to Scott Rolen. He then hit Edmonds for the second time and was ejected.

Zambrano’s antics against St. Louis aside, it was an impressive season for him: He led the Cubs starters in ERA and wins above replacement and finished fifth in the NL Cy Young Award voting. When Zambrano returned home to Venezuela in the offseason, he was treated like a celebrity. “People were treating me like I was God, and sometimes that made me shy and uncomfortable,” he said. “I don’t want people to look at me like that. I want them to see me like before, like I’m their friend. But I have to thank God that every dream I had growing up came true.”21

In 2005 and 2006, Zambrano emerged as the Cubs’ ace as the team fell out of contention. He was the Opening Day starter in 2005 after injuries to Kerry Wood and Mark Prior made them unavailable. Facing the Diamondbacks in Phoenix, Zambrano was removed by Dusty Baker in the fifth inning after he allowed three runs. After his removal, Zambrano was ejected for arguing. He was unhappy with home-plate umpire Dale Scott, though Zambrano insisted he merely told Scott he needed glasses.22 In the early part of the season, Zambrano dealt with some elbow soreness. The Cubs theorized that the problem arose because he spent too much time on the computer. Though Zambrano disagreed, he cut his internet use from five to two hours per day.23 Zambrano struck out over 200 batters for the first time and was the Cubs’ best pitcher in 2005 as the team finished 79-83.

The 2006 Cubs were one of the worst teams in baseball.24 Even on a bad team, Zambrano’s starts became a bright light for Cubs fans in a dire season. Zambrano made his second All-Star team and went 16-7 with a 3.41 ERA. In July he won six starts in a row. His best start during the run came on July 20 against Houston, when he allowed only two hits and one run while striking out 10.

Zambrano was due to qualify for free agency after the 2007 season. After the disappointing 2006 campaign, the Cubs made several changes, hiring Lou Piniella as manager and signing outfielder Alfonso Soriano and starting pitchers Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis. Zambrano struggled during the first two months and came into a start on June 1 (his 26th birthday) with a 5.24 ERA. After a disastrous fifth inning, he argued in the dugout with his catcher, Michael Barrett. After Barrett pointed to the scoreboard, Zambrano punched him in the face. A scuffle ensued that left Barrett with a cut lip and black eye.

Despite the drama, Zambrano improved his performance as the summer heated up, even winning NL Pitcher of the Month in July and becoming the first pitcher to win 14 games. In mid-August, Zambrano and the Cubs agreed on a five-year, $91.5 million contract extension. “Not everything is about money,” said Zambrano. “I know if I would go free agent, a lot of things would come to me. I feel good here, my family feels good. I love the town. … It’s my home.”25

With his future secured, Zambrano and the Cubs finished the season strong. Zambrano went 4-2 in September to finish 18-13 with a 3.95 ERA. And the Cubs used a strong finish to pass the surprising Milwaukee Brewers and win the Central Division title. In the Division Series, Chicago faced Arizona. Piniella tapped Zambrano for the Game One start. Zambrano pitched well, going six innings and allowing one run. But the Cubs lost the game and the next two to end their 2007 campaign.

In 2008 the Cubs were once again expected to contend for the division title. Through the first half of the season, they were tied with the Angels for the best record in baseball. Zambrano also had a stellar first half, going 10-3 with a 2.84 ERA. Zambrano was named to his third All-Star Team and was one of eight Cubs selected for the game at Yankee Stadium.

On September 14, 2008, Zambrano pitched a no-hitter against Houston at Miller Park in Milwaukee.26 Zambrano, pitching for the first time since September 2, was dominant from the start. He retired the first 14 Astros before hitting Hunter Pence. Pence turned out to be the only baserunner in the game. Working quickly throughout the game, Zambrano entered the ninth having thrown only 99 pitches. He retired the first two batters, Humberto Quintero and Jose Castillo, on routine grounders to shortstop. Zambrano ran the count full on Darin Erstad, then struck out Erstad out on a nasty split-finger pitch to give the Cubs their first no-hitter since one by Milt Pappas in 1972. After finishing the game, Zambrano said, “I guess I’m back.”27

Zambrano finished the 2008 regular season with two short starts in which he was hit hard. The Cubs won the NL Central Division again, winning 97 games, their most since 1945. Zambrano received the call for Game Two of the Division Series against the Dodgers. After the Cubs lost the opener, their defense betrayed Zambrano in Game Two. The Cubs made four errors and Zambrano allowed seven runs (but only three earned). The Dodgers swept the Cubs.

Zambrano was named the Cubs’ Opening Day starter in 2009 for the fifth year in a row. Perhaps his best performance of the season came on April 28 against the Diamondbacks. Zambrano allowed three runs in seven innings pitched, scored three runs himself, and got three hits, including his 17th career home run.28 In his next start, Zambrano injured his hamstring and required a trip to the disabled list. Once he returned, Zambrano had a major meltdown. Facing Pittsburgh on May 27, he was ejected in the seventh inning after an argument with an umpire. What’s more, Zambrano threw a ball to left field, tossed his glove away, and destroyed a water cooler with his bat. His new teammate Milton Bradley, himself known for his temper tantrums, approved: “That was pretty impressive,” said Bradley. “It was on [my] level.”29

It was not Zambrano’s final incident of the season. Pitching against the crosstown White Sox on June 28, Zambrano drilled Scott Podsednik and Dewayne Wise while allowing five runs. After throwing a pitchout to the screen on a squeeze, Zambrano hit Wise. White Sox players jumped to the top step of the dugout, although tempers cooled before a brawl ensued.30 His continued antics aside, Zambrano put together another good season with a 3.77 ERA in 169⅓ innings. But Zambrano was not satisfied with winning only nine games. After pitching a two-hit shutout against the Giants in late September, Zambrano declared he’d retire if he had a second consecutive bad season. “Look, this is the only season I haven’t won 16 or 18 or 14 games,” he said. “If it happens again next season, two seasons in a row, I’ll quit. Believe me, I’ll quit. I just have to put this behind me.”31 For the Cubs, it was a disappointing season; They finished 7½ games behind the division-winning St. Louis Cardinals.

Zambrano arrived for spring training in 2010 15 pounds lighter and determined to improve upon what he considered a poor 2009 season. “I’m a proud guy,” he told reporters at the start of camp. “Obviously, I wasn’t proud of the season I had last year. … I feel like a new guy. I feel like a rookie again.”32 Regarding offseason rumors that the Yankees tried to acquire him, Zambrano said he told his daughter the family might have to move but was happy no trade materialized.33 For the sixth year in a row, Zambrano received the Opening Day start. Facing Atlanta, he gave up six runs in the first inning, including a three-run homer by rookie outfielder Jason Heyward.

Zambrano bounced back with three consecutive solid starts. That made the decision to move him to the bullpen to serve as the set-up man for Carlos Marmol particularly shocking. Zambrano said he made the move to help the team: “I told [manager Lou Piniella] I want to help this team until you find somebody.”34 The move was only temporary; Zambrano returned to the rotation at the start of June. Facing the White Sox on June 25, he had another fit. After a four-run first inning, Zambrano blamed his teammates, yelling, “If you’re not going to play for me, then I’m not going to play for you!”35 In the dugout, Zambrano engaged in a shouting match with Derrek Lee and had to be separated from Lee. Piniella sent Zambrano home and the Cubs suspended him indefinitely. After general manager Jim Hendry called Zambrano a tired act, the media speculated that Zambrano had thrown his last pitch for the Cubs.

But the Cubs kept Zambrano around. He received counseling from anger-management specialists and rehabbed at Triple-A Iowa before returning to the Cubs. He first pitched out of the bullpen then returned to the rotation, starting 11 games and allowing no more than two earned runs in any start. Zambrano put together a solid season when he pitched, posting an 11-6 record with a 3.33 ERA.

For the first time since 2004, Zambrano did not start on Opening Day for the Cubs in 2011.36 He bashed teammates on June 4 after a loss to St. Louis, calling them Triple-A players.37 In a mid-August start against Atlanta, Zambrano made his final appearance for the Cubs. It was a rough start: He gave up eight runs on eight hits in 4⅓ innings. After giving up back-to-back homers in the fifth to Freddie Freeman and Dan Uggla, Zambrano threw two inside pitches to Chipper Jones and plate umpire Tim Timmons ejected him. Zambrano cleared out his locker and said he was retiring. It created a lot of confusion for players, sportswriters, and fans. The Cubs suspended Zambrano for 30 days and he remained away from the team the rest of the season.

After the 2011 season, the Cubs hired Theo Epstein to run their baseball operations. Cubs players who met with Epstein told him Zambrano no longer could gain their trust as a teammate.38 The Cubs dealt Zambrano to the Marlins and paid $15 million of the $18 million he was due in 2012.

Expectations were high for the Marlins in 2012 The team hired Ozzie Guillen as manager and signed Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and Heath Bell. With Buehrle and Josh Johnson anchoring the rotation, the Marlins slotted Zambrano at the back of their rotation. He got off to a rocky start, giving up three runs to Cincinnati in his first inning of the season.39 At the end of July, the Marlins yanked Zambrano from the rotation. For the rest of the season, he pitched out of the Miami bullpen as the team limped to a 69-93 record. The Marlins decided not to bring Zambrano back.

Zambrano failed to attract much interest in the offseason. As one of the best major-league pitchers to ever come from Venezuela, he had the opportunity to represent Venezuela in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.40 He started the second game of pool play against Puerto Rico, going 3⅔ innings and allowing two runs. It was his only start of the tournament as Venezuela failed to advance out of the first round.

In mid-May, Zambrano agreed to terms with the Philadelphia Phillies on a minor-league contract. His attempt to return to the big leagues ended when he left his start with Triple-A Lehigh Valley on June 28 with what was described as right-shoulder tightness.41 He was diagnosed with a Grade 1 (mild) latissimus muscle strain and was released by the Phillies.

Hoping to land a contract for 2014, Zambrano spent his winter pitching in Venezuela’s winter league. While there he started a brawl during the winter series final. After a teammate was hit by a pitch in retaliation for the previous batter admiring his home run, Zambrano led the charge from the dugout.42 He apologized for starting the brawl: “It’s something I have to work on. I’m a Christian, but I also believe forgiveness is a part of this. That’s why I ask for forgiveness from Venezuela first and [my team] second.”43 Asked whether he believed his on-field antics conflicted with his religious beliefs, Zambrano responded: “If you read the Bible, you’ll see that the apostle Paul was like me. The difference is that unlike Paul, I have not learned yet and I’m growing in the process.”44

No major-league team showed interest in Zambrano, and he announced his retirement in 2014. He appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2018 and received no votes. But he never entirely gave up on playing baseball, and in 2019 attempted a comeback with the Chicago Dogs of the independent American Association at age 38. Zambrano made 35 appearances for the Dogs and posted a 5.16 ERA. Unable to attract any interest from a major-league team, Zambrano retired again with plans to go into coaching.45

In the end, Zambrano remained committed to his faith. He has spent his post-playing days preaching in Miami, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela. As for the old Big Z? “God erased that. I’ve already asked God for forgiveness. It was part of the game and part of my determination to win and to get the Cubs a championship. So when I watched the Cubs win (in 2016), I was so proud.”46

Last revised: May 2, 2023



1 Pedro Miranda, The Big Z: The Carlos Zambrano Story (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2007), 31.

2 Melissa Isaacson, “Heart on His Sleeve,” Chicago Tribune, June 22, 2007: 4, 5.

3 Miranda, 32.

4 Miranda, 34.

5 Miranda, 36.

6 Miranda, 50

7 Miranda, 39, 61-63.

8 Miranda, 39, 66.

9 Miranda, 67-68.

10 Miranda, 68.

11 Miranda, 68.

12 Isaacson.

13 Teddy Greenstein, “Poor Hitting, Fielding Sink Cubs to New Low,” Chicago Tribune, July 2, 2002: 4, 5.

14 Teddy Greenstein, “Zambrano Finally Locates His Zone,” Chicago Tribune, September 5, 2002: 4, 3.

15 “Top 5 Bonds-Cubs Moments of 2003,” Chicago Tribune, May 18, 2004: 4, 8.

16 Fred Mitchell, “Fading Starter Carlos Zambrano,” Chicago Tribune, October 8, 2003: 9, 6.

17 Dan McGrath, “Game 5 Loser Carlos Zambrano,” Chicago Tribune, October 13, 2003: 8, 6.

18 “Cubs,” Munster (Indiana) Times, April 4, 2004: 25.

19 Nancy Armour, “Zambrano Dazzles in Cubs Romp over Rockies,” De Kalb (Illinois) Daily Chronicle May 8, 2004: 9.

20 Rick Gano (Associated Press), “Red-Hot Cardinals Frustrate Cubs,” Raleigh (North Carolina) News & Observer, July 20, 2004: 26.

21 Paul Sullivan, “Zambrano Truckin’ Along,” Chicago Tribune, February 27, 2005: 3, 10.

22 Paul Sullivan, “Squeeze Play Irks Zambrano,” Chicago Tribune, April 5, 2005: 4, 5.

23 Paul Sullivan, “Zambrano Says He’s Fine,” Chicago Tribune, May 25, 2005: 4, 6.

24 In fact, Carlos Zambrano hit three more home runs (6) during the season than starting outfielder Juan Pierre (3).

25 Dave van Dyck, “A Big Deal for Big Z,” Chicago Tribune, August 18, 2007: 3, 1.

26 The game was moved from Houston to Milwaukee because Hurricane Ike hit Houston.

27 Paul Sullivan, “Z for Zeroes,” Chicago Tribune, September 15, 2008: 4, 1.

28 Zambrano hit 24 home runs during his 12 years in the major leagues.

29 Paul Sullivan, “Big Z’s Fireworks Show,” Chicago Tribune, May 28, 2009: 2, 3.

30 Dave van Dyck, “A Pyrotechnical Knockout,” Chicago Tribune, June 29, 2009: 2, 3.

31 Paul Sullivan, “Big Z Aims for Big Finish,” Chicago Tribune, August 10, 2010: 2, 4. While the article is from 2010, it provides a statement Zambrano made in 2009.

32 Paul Sullivan, “Motivation Not a Problem,” Chicago Tribune, February 19, 2010: 2, 3. Though Zambrano’s advanced statistics from 2009 indicated he had a good season, he won only nine games.

33 Sullivan, “Motivation Not a Problem.”

34 Paul Sullivan, “Is This A Setup?” Chicago Tribune, April 22, 2010: 1, 84.

35 Paul Sullivan, “Lack of Hustle Leads to Tussle,” Chicago Tribune, June 26, 2010: 2, 3.

36 The Opening Day nod went to Ryan Dempster.

37 Bruce Levine, “Carlos Zambrano: Cubs Embarrassing,”, June 5, 2011, available at

38 Paul Sullivan, “Vocal Majority,” Chicago Tribune, January 6, 2012: 3, 4.

39 Zambrano wound up going six innings and allowing four runs.

40 As of 2022, Zambrano ranked third behind Johan Santana and Felix Hernandez among Venezuelan-born major-league pitchers in wins above replacement as calculated by Baseball Reference.

41 “Zambrano Injured in Pigs sweep,” Allentown (Pennsylvania) Morning Call, June 29, 2013: C1.

42 “There’s Plenty of Fight Left in Big Z,” Chicago Tribune, January 27, 2014: 3, 2.

43 Jesse Sanchez, “Venezuela Embraces Zambrano Despite Erratic Ways,”, February 4, 2014.

44 Sanchez.

45 Gordon Wittenmeyer, “Ex-Cub Carlos Zambrano,” Chicago Sun-Times, January 18, 2020, available at

46 Paul Sullivan, “Zambrano Finds New Life,” Palm Beach Post, April 7, 2018: C5.

Full Name

Carlos Alberto Zambrano


June 1, 1981 at Puerto Cabello, Carabobo (Venezuela)

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