The Zito contract was an obvious mistake from day one — no question about it. Multi-year $100MM contracts for pitchers are inherently risky, and that’s exacerbated by the fact that Zito wasn’t even much of an ace when he signed with the Giants. In fact, by 2007, he had declined to the point where he could honestly be considered nothing more than a solid mid-rotation arm.
In any event, I more-or-less consider myself to be a Barry Zito apologist. Over these past five years, he’s made a lot more money than he deserves, quite obviously, but I think he’s been better than he gets credit for. From 2007-2010, he averaged 1.85 WAR per season, which — contract details aside — is great for a fifth-starter.
In March, Bruce Jenkins wrote that Zito’s position with the Giants was “definitely not safe”:
A source close to the team indicated Tuesday that there is “exasperation” with Zito, that his status as the No. 5 starter is “definitely not safe,” and that the team would even consider buying out his expensive contract before Opening Day if that’s what it takes to say farewell.
That sounded crazy. This was, of course, before the emergence of Ryan Vogelsong and Eric Surkamp — a time when the Giants’ rotation insurance was Jeff Suppan, Clayton Tanner, or Dan Runzler. Zito had proven himself a perfectly decent back-of-the-rotation starter, and the Giants clearly didn’t have any better options at the time.
Now, perhaps that’s changed. Zito’s 33 years old, and his days as an average starter are quite possibly behind him. Never one to throw hard, Zito has seen his fastball velocity drop in 2011 to levels that are pretty much unacceptable (via Fangraphs):
His numbers, accordingly, have dropped off. His walk rate — 9.8% — is pretty much in line with his career norms, but his strikeouts have dipped to a new low (he’s striking out hitters at a measly clip of 13.7%). In nine starts, he’s racked up a grand total of -0.2 wins above replacement. We’re talking about a pitcher with the highest qualified walk rate in all of baseball during the last five years, and an 83 MPH fastball. At this point, it’s hard to believe the Giants don’t have five starters better than him.
San Francisco enters the 2012 season with four starters — Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and Ryan Vogelsong — that are quite clearly better than Zito. And though he’s made just two starts, I feel quite confident in saying that Eric Surkamp is also better than Zito at this point. It remains to be seen whether Jonathan Sanchez will be tendered a contract this offseason, but he’s also a better option in the fifth-starter slot than Zito.
The reason I bring this up is because Wendy Thurm has penned an excellent piece over at Baseball Nation in which she looks at teams getting rid of expensive/unproductive players. Zito, of course, is one of the main subjects of the article:
The Giants still owe Zito $39 million on the contract, plus $7 million if they fail to pick up Zito’s option for 2014 (which seems certain). Giants management has been non-committal when asked about Zito’s role next season. As with Rowand, the Giants will have determine this winter whether they are a better team without Zito as the fifth starter.
Maybe 2011 marks the end of Zito’s career as a San Francicso Giant. It’s a tough decision, but it’s looking like it’s probably the right decision. I imagine if the Giants eat the entirety of his contract, there will definitely be teams interested in acquiring him.
UPDATE: Because I think this is an interesting topic of debate…
1) Do you think the Giants should part ways with Zito this offseason?
2) Not accounting for cost, rank the following in order of who you think is the better SP entering 2012: Zito, Surkamp, Vogelsong, Sanchez.