We all know about the saga of the fifth wheel: the unnecessary adjunct that comes along for the ride without contributing much, if anything. When talking about the San Francisco Giants, two prominent and obvious fifth wheels come immediately to mind—Barry Zito and Aaron Rowand.
Both players have struggled mightily during their years wearing the orange and black, and neither has made contributions even remotely close to what was expected given their hefty contracts. Combined, the two will draw salaries of well over $30 million in 2011—meaning that more than a quarter of the Giants' payroll is devoted to just two players.
That might fly in the case of players that management can count on for All-Star performances, but given the woeful statistics of both Zito and Rowand over the past few seasons, everyone would have to agree that they're currently two of the most overpaid players in Major League Baseball today.
So much for the negatives. Because, in fact, once people get over the huge contracts—not an easy thing to do, admittedly—there remains a substantial amount of value that Zito and Rowand bring to the party.
Zito first. During his tenure with the Giants, Barry has been a mere shadow of the Cy Young award-winning pitcher who was so effective for the Oakland A's. Only the second half of the 2009 season and the first half of 2010 can be pointed to as reasonable returns on investment, and Zito slumped considerably during the latter half of last year, making minimal contributions to the team's stretch run and World Series victory.
Indeed, he didn't even make the postseason roster.
But is there a more effective fifth starter in the game today? The fact remains that Zito is an inning-eater who has never been hurt nor missed a start in his major league career. I've never been a big fan of so-called "inning eaters" who nonetheless sport shabby won-lost records at the top of the rotation.
But for a fifth starter? Most teams are challenged to throw out a warm body in that position, and can only hope for a win if that starter goes against another team's fifth pitcher or benefits from an offensive explosion. Even as a sub-.500 pitcher, Zito gives the Giants a chance to win every time he pitches.
More important, the team can count on him to pitch enough innings to really make a difference in terms of a rested bullpen as the season wears on. If you're forced to go to the pen early and often in the fifth spot throughout the year, that usually spells trouble in September, when the pen has to be rested and ready for the stretch run.
One other factor matters here. It's not impossible to expect Zito to bounce back and regain some, if not all, of his form, and that's because of the kind of pitcher he is. Power pitchers tend to lose their effectiveness as they age, but Zito has never been even close to a power pitcher. Even at his best, he couldn't break a pane of glass with his fastball.
We've all seen lefties with good breaking pitches and control who have lasted a long time and gotten a second wind late in their careers. Perhaps this will happen to Zito: With his contract, he'll certainly get the chance.
Are Zito and Rowand worthwhile reserves?
Now on to Rowand, another fifth wheel/fifth outfielder. It would appear that his best days are behind him, and any fan cringes at the thought of his waving fruitlessly at another low and outside slider in the dirt. We offer no defense for that. But it should be noted that Rowand is an excellent center fielder with fine range, good instincts and an accurate arm.
The defense gives away nothing with him in center, and it must be assumed that he would be more than capable filling in at any of the other two outfield spots. Add to that the fact that he does have some power—more than is usually found in a reserve outfielder—has the ability to get hot for spurts, and does indeed contribute at times, as he did in the postseason when called upon.
Most fifth outfielders are distinct role players who bring either speed or defense to a team, but little else. And while Rowand may not be capable of putting up the numbers ideally associated with an everyday player, those numbers and capabilities look attractive in a bench player, giving the team added depth and flexibility.
It should also be noted that both Zito and Rowand are generally considered to be strong clubhouse presences and all-around "team" guys. Zito took his postseason demotion with class and closed lips, while Rowand never once hung his head, despite being relegated to the bench for long periods of time during the season.
Chemistry really mattered to the 2010 Giants, and these two players contributed to that dynamic—instead of being the whining distractions so many other players would have become had they fallen on similar fates.
Yes, the contract numbers don't add up, and the on-the-field numbers don't look like much for both Zito and Rowand when compared to everyday players and stars. But when you're talking about two valuable fifth wheels, Giant fans should count their blessings to have two such capable spare tires in the team's trunk.
Expensive rubber, you may say? No doubt. But who wouldn't pay extra for another parade down Market Street—especially when it's not your money.