Zito to Oakland: A Return to Moneyball?

Can Zito rediscover his stuff in Oakland?
Can Zito rediscover his stuff in Oakland?

Barry Zito signed a minor league deal to fight for a rotation spot with the Oakland Athletics on Monday, guaranteeing the soon-to-be 37-year-old left-hander a $1 million salary if he makes the A’s roster, and another $175,000 through performance incentives. It’s a far cry from the $20 million that Zito received from the San Francisco Giants in 2013, but he’s making more than he was when he took a year off in 2014.

Zito returns to Oakland a shell of his former self. When Zito was at his peak, the same year that Michael Lewis was following the club and penning Moneyball, he was just 24, making his first All-Star appearance, and winning his first (and only) Cy Young award – 2002. With Zito, Tim Hudson, and Mark Mulder going a combined 57-21 with a 3.05 ERA over 99 starts and 675 innings, the A’s were on their way to being contenders, especially if you’re the “pitching wins championships” supporter. However, 103 wins later, the A’s weren’t able to get out of the ALDS, and Zito would have to wait to win a title with the team across the bay in 2010 and 2012.

Zito would never again come close to his 2002 production winning 16 games in 2006 for the Giants, while making two additional All-Star teams (2003 and 2006) and watching his ERA balloon with his wallet in a very disastrous time in San Francisco. Zito, who was paid a whopping $119 million over seven seasons by the Giants was unable to maintain a consistent spot in the rotation by the end of his time with the club, while posting a 4.62 ERA and 1.44 WHIP over 208 appearances and compiling a 63-80 record.

Zito2Though Zito took a year off, it is fair to wonder what the A’s and Billy Beane saw in him, even if the result was a non-guaranteed, minor league contract. At 37, Zito will be seven years the senior to the late Cory Lidle, who was the oldest member of the 2002 Moneyball rotation-mates; however, should he even be considered as an option? The A’s have a large group of talented, young starters to choose from, including: Jesse Hahn, Drew Pomeranz, Kendall Graveman, Chris Bassitt, and Sean Nolin, and that is before considering A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker, both of whom are returning from Tommy John surgeries, and Jesse Chavez, who was dynamite in the rotation prior to the deal that landed Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel in Oakland last season. With Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir anchoring the staff, the A’s have a gluttony of arms that they can run out there for quarters on the dollar of Zito’s deal, while certainly knowing that each of those arms has the ability to get opposing batters out – something that Zito wasn’t doing consistently the last time that we saw him in Major League Baseball, as he was banished to the bullpen for a majority of the final two months of 2013 (nine appearances, four starts).

Zito could be an interesting piece out of the bullpen, an arm with enough life left on it to be a useful swing man when the rotation is in need, or the long man out of the ‘pen. He could rebuild some value by pitching in the spacious home park that Oakland possesses, but if Zito is in the rotation, Billy Beane has failed.

The A’s are simply not the same type of organization that they were during the Moneyball era. Beane has built a roster full of versatile athletes who can play multiple positions, while featuring a unique blend of power-arms and changeup artists that keep the opposition off balance from day-to-day. The A’s aren’t fishing for players who can just get on base, as they have solid contact hitters (Billy Butler), speedsters with defensive chops (Coco Crisp), and injury-plagued potential stars (Brett Lawrie) who will blend together to assault the opposition, rather than waiting back for the perfect pitch to strike on.

Sure, it hasn’t always made sense in Oakland. It seems quite odd that the club would deal Samardzija to the Chicago White Sox for a lesser middle infield talent (Marcus Semien) than what they had given up months before (top five prospect Addison Russell), but what used to be a system of “finding” talent to fit within the organizational structure has now become “developing” talent to fit within an ever-changing organizational need.

As Barry Zito rejoins the Oakland Athletics, they are a completely different team from when he left. The A’s are built to contend, they have depth at the major league level, and they have Beane orchestrating moves that has even left right fielder Josh Reddick in awe. Zito is in a good place to attempt a comeback because he at least has a contract, but if he sees the field, the A’s are doing something wrong or in deep, deep trouble. Barring a miracle, Moneyball is over, and so is Zito’s career…unless Beane knows something that we don’t, once again.

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