Thursday, January 05, 2006

forget zito

rumors have been circulating for months on the eventual destination of oakland ace and former cy young award winner barry zito. at 28 years of age, with 86 wins and that hardware already in tow, with free agency looming after 2006, billy beane's oakland a's are thought to need to trade zito before losing him to the market without compensation.

this page might dispute that assertion -- after all, beane's low-overhead operation has already seen fit to pay him some $8.3mm for 2006, a significant commitment. however, the reality of zito's payday, considering the results of the 2005 free agency session, might be something on the order of six years at $14-16mm. that's an obligation that a team like oakland -- with dan haren, joe blanton and rich harden all under 25 and on staff, and with dan meyer and juan cruz in the system -- needn't bother with.

if we postulate that zito could be moved, the question for most cub fans becomes simply, "how can we get him?" but this page would not go that far -- in fact, this writer would advise you, dear reader, to forget about barry zito.

this isn't a commentary on zito, who is frankly about as good as pitchers come. blessed with incredible durability (five consecutive years over 213 innings pitched), stunning stuff (7.57 career hits/9) and reasonable control despite it, he's almost certain to be the top pitcher in free agency in 2006.

but that is specifically the problem for cub fans.

we can say with fair certainty at this stage of the offseason that the 2006 cubs, whatever they will be, will most likely not be contending to win anything meaningful. this team is currently constructed of a very average bullpen and a starting eight that looks to include two rookies, jacque jones and neifi perez (if we are to believe that wodd talker has mouthed his way down the depth chart). even if zito were to join a rotation already including zambrano and healthy prior -- which is no guarantee -- on either count -- this is simply not enough to contend within the national league central, where the quality of other teams, though not perhaps as superlative as last season, is considerable.

landing zito, then, would have to be a move not for an already-irremediable present but for the future.

as this page has said, this team is built for now or never -- derrek lee, aramis ramirez, juan pierre, greg maddux and kerry wood are all currently headed to free agency -- lee and ramirez quite possibly to massive paydays on the back of their considerable abilities. it should be apparent that, whatever the cubs might be able to afford, the reality of how the team is run all but precludes them from resigning all of these players. in truth, the cubs have done very little in the way of top-flight free agent signings since george bell and danny jackson -- greg maddux ($9mm), nomar garciaparra ($8.25mm) and jeromy burnitz ($4.5mm) were the biggest free agent signings on the 2005 squad, all of them second-tier acquisitions. it seems to this writer, then, farfetched to imagine the cubs simultaneously sealing first-tier contracts which will certainly approach the vicinity of $15mm a year over several years to both lee and ramirez.

while it is often hoped by some that these players will sign cut-rate contract extensions in lieu of testing the free agent waters, it is not wholly apparent to this page as to why they would. the better case, it seems, would be for derrek lee -- whose fantastic 2005 could be viewed by some as a one-off, something to be capitalized on now before it fades from view. but one should note that the new york yankees go into this year with jason giambi, a fine designated hitter, playing first base. this cannot have escaped the notice of lee and his agent. if lee feels capable of achieving anything like 2005's triumph in 2006, it would be hard to see why he would turn down what may be one of the largest free agent contract opportunities yet seen. aramis ramirez, for his part, specifically negotiated a player option following 2006 knowing that, if he hit as well as he has, he would then be a proven 29-year-old third baseman with a track record of .570 slugging percentages behind him. it's almost inconceivable that he would not take that opportunity to give himself a tremendous raise.

then imagine jim hendry and andy macFail trying to sign lee, ramirez and zito. and zito, it must be said, has arn tellem for an agent -- the very same arn tellem who talked mike mussina into leaving his beloved baltimore for richer waters. the chances of an extension, it would seem, are rather remote.

it seems quite clear to this page that hendry and macFail would not resign more than one of these three, indeed quite possibly bringing back none of them -- nor probably really even try, instead perhaps content to meet increased profit targets. seen in this light, zito's acquisition could almost only be as a rental.

so we have established that zito cannot solve the manifold problems of 2006, and in all likelihood will not be a cub in 2007 and after. but the question must be asked: what would he cost? for if acquiring zito could be done at no opportunity cost, what would the team have to lose?

in terms of prospects, the price for zito would almost certainly be high. paul sullivan has reported as much.

The A's reportedly have to be "overwhelmed" by an offer for Zito, Oakland sources said Friday. Oakland reportedly will demand a major-league pitcher and at least one top prospect. Any team that acquires Zito could lose him to free agency after 2006, a risk the Cubs would not take unless they were certain they could re-sign him.

with oakland positioned to win the american league west, one can imagine that this is true. moreover, beane is wise enough to know that zito's value is likely only to increase as the july 31 trading deadline approaches -- it is in his interest to wait, making the necessary deal to dislodge zito all the more spectacular. would the cubs pay this price, considering hendry's detrimental fixation with young talent? and -- at least as importantly -- should they?

though it may be controversial to say so -- especially considering that some top cub prospects may not be worth keeping -- this writer would rather take his chances with jerome williams, rich hill and matt murton at this point than throw good talent after bad money in trying to rectify the cubs' wasted offseason with a splashy but insufficient rental. winning teams are built in november and december of the previous year, and the cubs simply have not done so again this season. with so many holes in the dyke, and zito, good as he is, only representing his few fingers for a short time, it is the considered opinion of this writer that followers of the cubs should abandon hopes of barry zito.

this was a critical offseason, and it seems more with every passing day a conclusive failure. perhaps the job the cubs should be applying themselves to now is not scrambling to fill the holes of 2006 but setting their house in order -- cleaning it from top to bottom -- and cultivating a core of young players that will be the nucleus of the 2008 club.

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