Monday, January 01, 2007
Just Don't Call Him a Flake
There's a fairly new axiom going around in baseball that it isn't the dollars of a contract that kills a team, it's the years. Giving Barry Zito $18 million a year isn't the worst thing in the world; giving him that much over seven years just may be. We all knew it would take some mind-blowing combination of money and years to get Zito. It's just that nobody expected the Giants to be the ones handing it out. At this price, I would almost rather have just given Jason Schmidt and his spit-and-bailing wire arm the four years that the Dodgers gave him and held my breath that his shoulder held together.
Anybody who knows anything about the history of pitchers, especially left-handed pitchers, can tell you that it's incredibly dumb to hand out a long-term deal to any pitcher, no matter how good he is. Pitchers are the most unpredictable beings on the baseball diamond. The human arm wasn't meant to take the incredible stress that throwing a baseball for 200 innings a year entails, and thus the breakdown potential for pitchers is incredibly high. For every Tom Glavine there are like ten Don Gulletts or Russ Ortizes, guys who pitched a ton of innings early in their careers and shagged their arms because of it. Barry Zito's most comparible pitcher at the same age is Mike Hampton, a guy who was a picture of health and effectiveness before signing that insane contract with Colorado. Ever since then, Hampton has been alternating crappy pitching with long stays on the DL.
I could see giving this kind of deal to a great pitcher like Johan Santana or Roy Halladay, because the risk you run is only on the injury front; if they stay healthy, you know you'll get your money's worth. Sadly, Zito is not a great pitcher, or anything close to it. He's an above average pitcher with a declining fastball who allows a lot of baserunners. He was second in the American League in walks allowed last year and his 1.40 WHIP is probably an indicator that the great Oakland defense was keeping his ERA from ballooning to over 4. Zito is durable and has never been hurt but, again, pitchers who enter their thirties can just blow up out of nowhere and I can bring up what happened to Mike Hampton again as an example. Or Denny Neagle. Or Shawn Estes. Or Jim Merritt if you really want to go retro.
Look, given Zito's declining peripheral numbers and his general lack of dominance, I'd say that the Giants are going to be lucky if Zito is worth it for three of the seven years in this deal. I just can't imagine that in 2013 Zito's fastball-curve-walks combo will still be baffling hitters, and that's even if his arm is still attached. I guess this signing is Brian Sabean's response to all those crazed fans longing for that big Giant splash on the free agent market. Well, here it is, only it's almost completely wrong-headed. The Giants made Zito the highest paid pitcher in history when he wasn't even a top ten pitcher and has really had only one dominant year in the majors, and that was five seasons ago. Am I the only one who sees anything wrong with this?
No one could have predicted that the market would spin as out of control as it has this winter, but when you think that the Giants could have grabbed a true cornerstone player like Vladimir Guerrero three years ago or Carlos Beltran two years ago for less money than Zito is going to get now...well, it just makes me want to vomit, and no, a New Year's hangover has nothing to do with it. I liked Zito as an Athletic, and I'm sure the stories about his weird quirks and bizarre doll collections will be amusing, but I can't say I completely disagree with some of the commentators (like Rob Neyer or Nate Silver) who are calling this one of the worst signings ever. There are people on fan forums raving over Zito, but trust me, this ain't Bonds circa 1993 here, folks.
The move isn't all apocalyptic doom and gloom, though. While the long-term ramifications have me shielding my eyes, the Zito signing does give me hope for 2007. Zito should be a top 20 pitcher at least for the next two years, and his pairing with Matt Cain atop the starting rotation gives the Giants quite an enviable one-two punch. If Matt Morris can lower his ERA by a run (which I think is likely, given his decent 2006 WHIP) and if Noah Lowry, assuming he isn't traded, can stay healthy, the Giants have the makings of one of the better rotations in the National League.
The moves to improve the lineup have been minimal, and I still cling to the hope that Sabean will bring in a right fielder worth a damn, but it still looks as though the Giants at least have enough parts to compete in the crappy NL. As the Cardinals showed us last season, if you can just sneak into the playoffs, who knows, maybe your horrible catcher will have an inexplicable stretch of competence at the plate and you'll win the World Series.
Happy New Year's! May 2007 bring the Giants all kinds of glory.