Monday, January 01, 2007

MLB: The Ups and Downs of Barry Zito's Monster Deal

By Dustin Hockensmith

The San Francisco Giants signed left-hander Barry Zito to a 7-year, $126 million deal – the largest ever for a pitcher – late last week and came under immediate scrutiny. Long-term contracts for pitchers have not historically been wise investments, just ask Kevin Brown and Mike Hampton, but I think this one will turn out differently. Zito has not been dominant in the four seasons since his 2002 Cy Young award, but the 28-year old has also never missed a start – the key to this deal.

With so much uncertainty about the future of a pitcher, Zito has offered the closest thing to a crystal ball with his impeccable health history. He should also grow as a pitcher in the National League, where his curveball will be used less and his command will improve. His tendency to put a lot of runners on base will still be there, but the combination of weaker hitting teams, no designated hitter, a pitcher-friendly park and fewer walks should call for a significant improvement in his 2006 numbers.

Specifics aside, this deal makes sense in pretty simple terms. The Giants wanted Barry Zito, and Zito wanted to be a Giant. Is he cornerstone type player? Probably not right now, but he can be and is more-than-ready to be the leader of San Francisco's balanced staff. His stay in the Bay Area eliminates one personal transition for him to make, and he could really break out as a Giant.

Frankly, Zito needs to break out to make this deal really worth San Francisco's while. It's great to be a reliable innings eater, but that's more of a saving grace for a No. 3 starter than a No. 1. Zito needs to be a stopper, a leader and an annual 15-plus game winner. If he takes those steps and continues to log the 200-plus inning seasons that have been guarantees thus far, Giants GM Brian Sabean will need a big pat on the back for his vision.

Other Notes
Zito's Impact on the Giants Staff
Zito's professionalism sets a great example for a staff that vaguely resembles the old Zito-Tim Hudson-Mark Mulder threesome in Oakland. Some added chemistry from Zito provides added value to Matt Cain, who can flourish with less pressure, and Noah Lowry, as he tries to bounce back from injury and inconsistency in 2006.

The Big Picture
The 28-year old neither helps nor hurts the Giants, in terms of their quest to get younger (or older) in 2007. It is obviously Sabean's intent to put together a veteran team year-in and year-out, and I would say that it has worked out pretty well so far. In a mediocre National League West, why blow the organization up now when it's just as easy to go the other way and remain a competitor for the NL West crown?

For the Fans
Contention for a playoff berth is really icing on the cake when it comes to luring Giants fans to the ballpark. What you get with Zito is a whole lot of buzz and optimism in San Francisco and yet another reason for fans to come to the ballpark every fifth day. They will immediately love the quirky Zito, who might just be too goofy or spiritual to understand the pressure $126 million should put on him.

Zito vs. Vernon Wells
Position players justifiably get more money and longer contracts, and the same 7-year, $126 million deal that both Zito and Blue Jays center fielder Vernon Wells signed is a better daily value for Toronto. The thing that can make both of these players franchise guys worthy of such sums is that they are unassuming blenders who contribute to team chemistry, not compromise it.

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