It’s only the 2nd of March, but already there is intrigue in the cactus league camp of the reigning World Champion. Though denied officially by the Giants organization, the word on the street is that Barry Zito is dangerously close to being cut. Bruce Jenkins reports that
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.
There is no need to rehash the disaster that is Barry Zito’s 7 year, $126M contract. The Giants owe Zito $58M from 2011-2013, plus another $7M when they decline his $18M option in 2014. Lost in his absurd contract numbers is the fact that Zito has delivered value for the Giants.
In the past 4 years, Zito has made 131 starts, over which he has pitched 768 innings with an adjusted ERA of 97 – clearly not ace material, not even top of the rotation numbers – nevertheless, year after year 190 innings of league average pitching is not worthless. In fact, Zito has basically delivered 2 WAR per year (or $10M in value by today’s standards). Since 2007, only 6 pitchers have taken the mound more often than Zito.
Breaking down the data a bit more, it appears that Zito righted the ship to some extent after the 2008 season. Over the past 2 years, Zito was his normal durable self, making 66 starts and posting a 4.09 ERA (or an ERA+ of 102), slightly better than league average.
Looking around the division, the other 5th starters are players like Tim Stauffer (2010 WAR: 1.3, 82 IP), Jon Garland (0.8, 200IP) and Jhoulys Chacin (3.0, 128 IP). The Giants and Padres decided the division on the last weekend of the year. Staying in-house at Giants camp, Jenkins points to two possible options as Zito’s replacement at the bottom of the Giants rotation: Jeff Suppan, or Clayton Tanners. Over the same 4 year period as Zito, Suppan managed 110 starts, and 647 IP at an ERA+ of 85. Tanner, a 3rd round pick from the 2006 draft, finally made it to Double-A in 2010, posting a 4.44 FIP in 149 innings. Given the scarcity of starting pitching around the league, it seems safe to point out that replacing Zito in the rotation would hurt the 2011 Giants in two ways: first, the Giants would be unlikely to find a league average pitcher to fill his shoes, and second, equally unlikely would be finding a workhorse that could be counted on to take the ball every 5th day throughout the dog days of summer.
The Giants face a number of large issues this year, which I have spent some time chronicling. From a contractual perspective, because Aaron Rowand’s $13M this season and next season essentially has no chance to make the lineup (with the emergence of Andres Torres, signing of Pat Burrell, acquisition of Cody Ross etc), first priority ought to be unloading that contract, eating a significant portion of course. Tim Lincecum gets a new contract after finishing this year at $14M, while Matt Cain makes $7.3M before doubling to $15M in 2012 and then free agency looms. Though Buster Posey’s arrival was delayed until mid-season last year, he appears to be the cornerstone on which the Giants franchise will be built for the next decade. Madison Bumgarner and Brandon Belt are young guns who should emerge as pieces to the Giants puzzle during 2011.
Barry Zito’s contract is horrific, but it’s a sunk cost. That money is spent. And in a division that promises to be exceptionally competitive, the Giants would be loath to cut their best 5th starter option.