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An expensive mistake

by Matt Smith

Being an A’s fan, I’ve made more than a few comments about the San Francisco Giants’ decision to give Barry Zito a seven year/$126m contract prior to the 2007 season. Not many were particularly kind to our Bay area rivals; in fact when I write ‘not many’ I actually mean ‘none’.

Zito may have won the Cy Young in 2002, but in one sense that has counted against him (not in the financial sense, that’s for sure). From 2005 onwards, Zito has been a good pitcher, a guy who will take the mound every fifth day and generally give you a chance to win. That’s a worthwhile player to have on your roster and in the current free agent market, that sort of player gets very well remunerated (normally at around the 4 year/$12m per season mark). He’s not a number one starter though, not even a number two. The Giants decided to pay him as if he was one of the best pitchers in the game, despite the evidence showing that this wasn’t, and isn’t, the case and they are going to have to live with the consequences.

His first year with the Giants wasn’t much to shout about (11-13 with a 4.53 ERA) and his 2008 campaign has been little short of disastrous so far. Zito has taken the loss in all six of his starts, striking out just eleven hitters in 28.2 innings while walking fifteen and giving up 24 earned runs. At this time of year, it’s far from unusual to see some wacky ERAs in the boxscores. Still, Zito’s 7.53 mark takes the cake. Things have got so bad that the Giants have now announced that he will be relegated to the bullpen. At $14.5m this season, around £141,724 per week, that doesn’t exactly represent value for money.

However, perhaps the news that Zito has been relegated to the bullpen will prove to be a watershed moment? It’s the ultimate declaration that the Giants got it completely wrong. They are holding their hands up and can now move forward with the process of rebuilding Zito back into a dependable number three starter, because at the moment they’re not even getting that for their money. Needless to say, it’s very unlikely that any team is going to bail the Giants out by taking him off their hands, unless San Fran are willing to swallow a large amount of the contract. Cutting their losses in this way might not be much of a help considering the sums involved, so going down the route of accepting him as an expensive back of the rotation starter might be the best of a bad bunch of options. They will still be drastically overpaying for his services, but at least they’ll be getting something back in return.

It was noticeable over the recent off-season that teams appeared to be less willing to dish out multi-year contracts to league average pitchers (Kyle Lohse being a good example). A bit more sense has seemingly crept into the system, with teams simply withdrawing from the table rather than paying over the odds for minimal gains. The Zito deal wasn’t the turning point though. It wasn’t a mistake you could learn from, it was plain madness.

Despite the fact that Zito walked away from the A’s for the biggest pay day (after saying he was more interested in joining a team that could win), and despite the fact that he left us for our main rivals, I don’t get any enjoyment from seeing him struggle. He’s always come across as a decent guy so I genuinely would like him to turn things around, not least just to see that 12-6 curveball back on form.

We’ve got no way of knowing whether Zito will bounce back or not. We do know his 2007-2013 seasons won’t be worth $126m. I can be charitable to Zito, but the Giants? I’m afraid I’ll be chuckling about this deal for the duration.

And one word of comfort for Zito in all of this: at least he’s not Roger Clemens right now!

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