Back in 2006, Barry Zito was the most coveted starting pitcher on the free agent market. Zito was only 28 at the time and many teams believed that Zito's best days were still ahead of him. My beloved Mets made a strong run at Zito, but wisely and thankfully, GM Omar Minaya refused to go beyond 5 years on Zito. Sigh of relief on that one.
Why Sign Zito: Zito brought a lot to the table for the Giants. GM Brian Sabean understood that the Giants needed to have a post Barry Bonds franchise player and Zito seemed to be a welcome fit into that role. Zito had played and thrived in the Bay Area for his entire career with the A's so the Giants already knew that he could survive in the environment.
"We view Zito as a franchise player, and we'll certainly need one when Bonds goes," a Giants source told The San Francisco Chronicle. ESPN.comSigning Zito would have given the Giants a young front line starter, who they believed could anchor their up and coming rotation for the next decade. Along with Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, and eventually Tim Lincecum, the Giants believed that with Zito as their ace, their rotation would be one of the best in baseball for years to come.
So the Giants went above and way beyond to make sure that Zito was a Giant. They signed Zito to a 7 year/$126 million dollar contract, which was the longest and richest contract (at the time). Little did they know just how badly this deal would work out for them.
What Went Wrong: In his first two years with the Giants, Zito's performance has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Instead of throwing a fastball in the low 90s, Zito has been consistently clocked in the mid 80s, which takes away the unpredictability of his off speed stuff. Also, Zito can no longer use his trade mark curveball as an effective out pitch. And to make matters worse, Zito's control has taken a turn for the worse (102 BBs in '08), which is saying something because his control has never been good.
No one really knows what's wrong with Zito. Could it be his mechanics? Could it be mental? Could it be the contract? Either way, it's rather puzzling to watch a 30 year old former ace mysteriously lose a few MPH on his fastball and implode like Zito has.
Future Implications: This is the kind of contract that could set back a franchise for the next 5-10 years. As I look at the Giants roster, without Zito, they are a young and competitive team. However, Zito's contract might prevent them from seriously competing in 2009. Instead of paying a 30 year old 5th starter $18 million bucks, they could be using that money to upgrade their ineffective offense by signing Manny Ramirez or Adam Dunn.
Instead, the Giants will probably be forced to refrain from making the big signing that could ultimately launch them atop the NL West.
Giants officials should be praying to every God they know that Zito recaptures his old form. Such a transformation is highly unlikely at this point, which makes the Giants' outlook for the next few seasons look awfully bleak. They now have roughly 15%-20% of their team payroll committed to a rapidly declining starting pitcher, who they have no idea what kind of performance they can expect. That's a dire situation if I ever saw one.
Lesson Learned: Be very very very cautious when giving out long term deals. There were warning signs about Zito from the beginning (high WHIP, lots of walks, increasing ERA) that should have alerted Giants officials that Zito was no longer an ace or even front end starter. However, the Giants brought into the hype and as a result, the franchise will be in deep trouble if Zito continues to decline.