Carlos Zambrano out of the setup role, moving to long relief

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Leading 2-1 in the top of the eighth inning, Cubs reliever John Grabow gave up a hit, two walks and, eventually, the tying run.

Then, in an effort to stop the bleeding, manager Lou Piniella turned to closer Carlos Marmol to get a rare five-out save.

Where was Carlos Zambrano, the freshly-minted 91-million-dollar setup man, during all this?

In the dugout.

Afterward, Piniella was asked why the former ace of his staff wasn’t used in the pivotal situation.

“We’re going to change Zambrano’s role,” he said. “We’re going to start stretching him out a bit and then he’s going to gain some stamina and some arm strength — and we’ll leave it at that.”

Yes, just three short weeks after he was moved out of the starting rotation to the bullpen, Zambrano’s job duties will be changing yet again. And no matter how much Piniella would have liked to leave it at that and switch topics, he had to know that wasn’t a realistic desire.

How could that have been the end of it?

It couldn’t.

Not when the most compelling story line of a crossroads season on the North side just got another plot twist.

“Look, we thought the outcome would be a little different and he’s not as comfortable with it in the bullpen pitching short, so we’re going to use him in a different role,” Piniella added.

Then came the obvious question: Is the move to long relief a stepping stone for Zambrano’s eventual return to the starting rotation?

Piniella seemed to indicate as much.

“The next stop, probably down the road, yes. If need be, yes,” he said.

“[Piniella and I] had a long conversation with the pitching coach,” Zambrano said. “They’re trying to put me back in the rotation.

“Whatever they want me to do, I’ll do it. If they want to send me to the minor leagues to work, I’ll work in the minor leagues. If they want me to work here, I’ll work here. The thing is, I haven’t thrown in a game for more than 65 pitches as a starting pitcher since three weeks ago. Obviously, I’m not a machine and I need to build my arm again.”

The speculation is that Zambrano could find himself back into the five-man carousel if there were an injury. Considering Carlos Silva’s track record, it might not be a bad idea to have someone locked and loaded should the necessity arise.

Another factor is increasing his trade value. It’s hard to imagine a contender taking on an 18-million-dollar-a-year setup man. It’s slightly more likely they’d pay that for a starter.

There is no timetable set for a Z’s potential return, however. Piniella said the righty would be available out of the bullpen Tuesday, when Silva gets the start.

“They told me today that there may be a chance to go back to the rotation,” Zambrano said. “We’ll see how everything works in the next few outings.

“As long as this team is happy, I’m happy for this team. Whatever this team wants me to do, I do. This is a business and they’re the boss. If the boss wants me to go close games, I close games. If the boss wants me to be a starter again, I’ll start again. It’s up to them, it’s their choice.”

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