I recently read an interesting article online outlining MLB’s worst free agent signings over the last 25 years. Most of the names and slots I agreed with, with maybe a couple of exceptions. I did not agree with the list’s topper, Mr. Barry Zito, who will take the ball in Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS for the Giants at Cincinnati with the season on the line. No, he hasn't lived up to his $126 million deal. Short of winning 20 annually, I don't think he or any other hurler could have.
But naming him the No.1 free-agent mistake in the last quarter-century isn’t fair, in my eyes, and neither is calling his output “dreadful” as the writer did. He is not the worst FA signing of the past 25, 20, 15, 10 or even five years.
Just listen to what I have to say first before raining down the ridicule…
Let’s travel back to the year 2006, namely its conclusion. The Giants finished 76-85, their second straight losing season. Barry Bonds was not Barry Bonds until the final weeks of the year. J.T. Snow was gone and Jason Schmidt was as good as gone. They lost a respected leader, Mike Matheny, to early retirement in May after one too many cage-rattlings. Matt Cain had wrapped up his first full MLB season. Tim Lincecum turned in a half-season of low A ball, his first pro experience. Buster Posey hadn’t even been drafted yet.
Armando Benitez was still our “closer”, which is to say we were closer to losing than winning once he entered a game. Felipe Alou was the lamest of lame-duck managers. Oh, and our pals the Dodgers won the N.L. West for the second time in three years, using several of our former heroes and our former assistant GM to help them get there.
To summarize: there was little reason to cheer for the Orange and Black going into 2007.
It’s hard to imagine now, after so much time has been spent on our championship high—one which effectively erased any and all trying times leading up to (and even during) the 2010 season.
But it’s true. Were it not for Bonds’ home run record chase—which, let’s face it, didn't draw us all in the way it should have—there was little to no reason to talk about the Giants. Today, if you don a Giants cap and you pass a fellow with a Giants cap, you smile and maybe even speak: “We’re gonna come back on them Reds!” Or maybe even, “Yeah, man I was at the parade, too! Where were you?”
Six years ago, same situation: you both solemnly lower your heads and silently proceed, almost ashamed at your expressed support of such a hopeless cause.
If I knew that the Giants were the topical derivative of Bay Area baseball, that the Athletics and their dump of a ballpark, marginal budget, flimsy fanbase and 96 wins (including postseason) were not only capturing all the headlines but re-establishing themselves as THE preferred local franchise; the team Joe CasualFan would buy a ticket to see, surely the Giants’ front office—from GM Brian Sabean to President Larry Baer on up to Peter McGowan (who was still in place as managing general partner)—knew it, too.
The team had to make a move now, because waiting around for their gimpy, moody, bloated left fielder to possibly break the home run record in unpopular fashion wasn't going to be enough—a point driven home when they went hard after Carlos Lee and Alfonso Soriano, both left fielders (like Bonds) and the biggest free agents of the 2006-07 class. Both players signed elsewhere, basically forcing the team to overpay for another year of Bonds while pretending that’s what they wanted all along.
That’s where Barry Zito entered the picture.
From a purely baseball standpoint, there was no reason in the world to not sign Zito. No human alive would argue that a 28-year-old pitcher, with a lifetime record of 102-63, 3.55 career ERA in the American League during the tail end of the steroids era, four seasons removed from a Cy Young Award, with five postseasons under his belt and nary an hour spent on the disabled list, was not worth locking up for a long time.
Especially when you realize Cliff Lee, the 2010-11 free agent headliner, was 102-61 with a 3.85 ERA in his career, with a WHIP slightly higher than Zito’s when he hit the market. Unlike Zito to that point, he had missed starts due to injury; several of them. Oh, and he was four years older than Zito was! It amazes me that hardly anyone acknowledges the statistical similarities between the two, or even raises the possibility that Lee could well lose his touch as Zito did for long stretches.
I'm not knocking Lee at all. He’s been great and will hopefully continue to be great against every non-San Francisco team. I'm just using the back of his baseball card as a comparative example of the type of pitcher San Fran thought they were signing that winter of '06. If the Giants had one or more rotation holes and a legit shot at signing Cliff Lee this off-season, and they didn’t take it, wouldn’t you Giants fans want all executives to take a one-way trip to the guillotine?
If the Giants had not signed, or at least done everything to sign Barry Zito, a pitcher whose Oakland resume practically mirrored Cliff Lee’s—especially with Jason Schmidt gone—could you Giants fans have accepted it and moved on, not knowing he'd only give you the Zito you expected roughly 33% of the time? Be honest. You wouldn't have liked it, especially upon some AAA stiff impersonating a big leaguer getting his ass kicked start after start that #75 could have been making.
The Giants had been burned by Carlos Lee. Burned by Soriano. Ditched by Schmidt (though in hindsight his defection was appreciated). Reduced to bringing back former heroes Rich Aurilia and Russ Ortiz, who only resembled their previous All-Star selves while looking in the mirror. Forced to resign Bonds, Pedro Feliz and Ray Durham (who'd been a rare 2006 bright spot) while returning most of the same ho-hum uninspiring 2006 bunch.
Money be damned, a “splash” had to be made with a very big fish. Someone was going to be grotesquely overpaid in the name of franchise credibility and fan hope. And if that outcome was inevitable, why not dole out dollars to a local hero with a sparkling resume and no health issues, who’s used to winning and still in his prime (unlike almost every other name free agent imported to S.F. in the 2000’s)? Again, from a baseball standpoint, there was no reason not to sign Zito.
The Giants overpaid for him on purpose to guarantee he wouldn't burn them as the others did. Of course the Mets and the Rangers weren't going to pay him that kind of dough. Neither one of those clubs needed him that bad.
We all know Zito has not consistently been an (average annual) $18M performer, or even a $10M performer, especially in 2007-2008. Many forget, however, in the second half of 2009 and first half of 2010, he was as good as he’s ever been–forgettable because Zito grouped a whole season worth of slump into 2010’s stretch run, ending up with the stigma only an $18M postseason cheerleader can carry.
But to say he is THE worst free-agent signing since 1987 when you have guys like Schmidt (who took three years, $47 million from the Dodgers to go 3-6 in 10 total starts); Denny Neagle (who took five years, $51 million from Colorado to go 19-23, 6-something ERA before getting hurt, then caught with a hooker and having his final year terminated) or Carl Pavano (who after ONE good season, took four years, $40 million from the Yankees to go 9-8, with a 5.00 ERA in 26 total starts, while lying about injuries which mounted so often even his own teammates questioned their legitimacy) is wholly unjustified—especially when you consider San Fran won a title with Barry.
How much of a drain could he have been on the franchise if they still won a World Series while employing him?
Unlike those samples and several unlisted others, Barry Zito played 11 years without sniffing the DL and has never refused to take the ball, even when being savagely booed by his home fans. He’s been nothing but exemplary off the field. In his spare time he’s running Strikeouts For Troops, not soliciting women of the night. By all accounts he is an extraordinary worker and never blamed anyone or anything for his struggles…even when he had a case to.
I will stand by Zito. What good would booing do? If that were effective, he’d have been righted back in May of 2007! I’m not going to be the classless prick in my vicinity who chanted “What’s the matter with Zito? HE’S A BUM!” during the World Series parade. As long as he works hard and sports the Giants colors, I will support him win or lose against the Reds tonight. Go, Giants!