Can the Pitching-Starved Mets Save Barry Zito?

George FitzpatrickCorrespondent IMay 1, 2008

In case you have been living under a rock that doesn't get ESPN, former member of the Big Three, Barry Zito, has gone from Opening Day starter to the Giants bullpen. Until the Mets robbed Johan Santana from the Twins last offseason, Zito had the biggest contract ever for a pitcher - but as one "honor" gets stripped from him, another appears imminent, as he now looks like he might become the biggest free agent bust ever (Mike Hampton, look out for your crown).

We knew he was in decline when he signed with SF, and we knew that Sabean was yet another victim of the voodoo magic of Scott Boras that seemingly makes any General Manager hand him a blank check - but considering his move from the AL to one of the biggest pitcher's parks in the NL and his incredible durability, I thought they would at least get above-average innings for most of the deal.


Even though free agent pitchers tend to disappoint at the same rate as flashy NFL wide receivers, I'm still dumbfounded by this. My friend Nick joked it's as if the Monstars stole his talent in order to prepare for a baseball sequel to Space Jam. San Francisco Chronicle Writer Gwen Knapp said "Zito is fast becoming the pitcher's answer to Chuck Knoblauch and Steve Sax," reflecting a similar sentiment.

It isn't uncommon for a player to just spontaneously implode for no apparent reason; in addition to the aforementioned Knoblauch and Sax, Steve Blass, Rick Ankiel, Mackey Sasser, and Mark Wohlers all were victims. But the fact is, Zito's decline hasn't been sudden - in fact, it's as if, much like Miguel Tejada, he's been lying about his age.

No, I'm not about to trap Zito into an interview and reveal a correct birth certificate for him, but he is showing some of the classic signs of decline due to age - his HR/9 is up compared to his prime and his strikeouts and velocity are down. Pitchers tend to settle into a prime, pitch slightly below that prime for a while, and eventually collapse. Zito seems to have done all those things, but it seems odd that it's before 30, especially considering he has never been injured in his career. The only other example of a guy who had a similar pattern (off the top of my head) was Doc Gooden, who had 2 incredible years, 8 really good ones after that, and really had nothing left by 29. However, there are 2 logical reasons for his collapse; his cocaine addiction eroded his work habits, focus, and talent, and Mel Stottlemyre was told by the Mets to make him throw slower in an attempt to save his arm.

Zito doesn't have those obvious reasons for decline, meaning his problems might be more subtle - his issues are probably mental or mechanical. The fact that it might simply be lack of confidence is possible, but if that was the case, the Giants sending Zito to the pen probably just made the problem worse and it might take a change of scenery to help him get it back. Mechanics are also possible, as his declining command and velocity in his physical prime seem to indicate a delivery issue.

And if Zito needs a change of scenery and a pitching coach that can fix his mechanics - there is a team that seems like the ideal fit. That team would be the New York Mets.

It sounds insane at first, but when you break it down, it makes plenty of sense for both Barry and the Mets. First of all, Zito would be reunited with Rick Peterson, his pitching coach during his best years in Oakland. I'm not about to call Peterson a miracle worker, and it's not like he can fix any pitcher in 10 minutes, but he has worked well with two other extreme flyball pitchers like Zito - John Maine (who wasn't even successful in AAA before being traded to the Mets) and Oliver Perez (who looked lost 2 years after a stellar 2004).

The Mets also need a guy like Zito because their rotation is currently banged up with Pedro and El Duque turning into a Queens equivalent of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. The durability problems of the rotation killed the Mets in the 2006 playoffs when Pedro, El Duque and Trachsel all went down in the final month, and also killed the Mets in 2007 when the lack of healthy starters that could go deep into games resulted in a bullpen implosion that became a team implosion. Willie Randolph learned under Joe Torre, and Mets fans will tell you it reflects in his bullpen usage - so the front office needs to put together a rotation that can eat innings. Even in Zito's current form, he can still take the ball every 5th day - and if recent history has proved anything, that means a lot.

The Mets aren't really in position to add a guy with the farm depleted from the Santana trade, but that won't matter when it comes to Zito. The Giants move of Zito to the bullpen less than a month into the season is a sign of desperation - if they believed in their investment at all, they would let him pitch his way out of it. With a team that simply doesn't have enough talent to get anywhere, Sabean would probably be content with dumping half of Zito's salary and picking up some midlevel prospects. Don't get me wrong - the Mets would be taking on over $50 million dollars over six years, but they are in a big enough market to handle the risk. If Zito only becomes a backend starter, that's still decent value considering the massive inflation plaguing free agency - and if he doesn't, he was still a better investment then Mo Vaughn, at least.

Omar Minaya has shown the willingness to take risks and roll the dice throughout his tenure with the Mets, and the results have been solid so far. Mr. Minaya, as a Mets fan who sees the season headed down the same road as the last two, I hope you take yet another and trade for Barry Zito.