The looming question of Barry Zito

It won't be long before the Zito rumors begin in earnest.  He is our most valuable trading chip, with a year left on his contract, a reputation as a clutch pitcher, and a Cy Young to his credit.  And he's still in his mid-20s.

It is widely assumed by baseball insider types that Zito will be dealt by the deadline.  He will fetch several good prospects, Bruce Jenkins wrote over the weekend in the Chronicle.  Rob Neyer says it's just a matter of time.

I can make a case for dealing Zito.  It's not difficult.  First, there is the question of whether Zito would consider signing a contract extension with Oakland this offseason under any circumstances.  If I am Zito, and especially if I'm Zito's agent, I don't think I would do it.  The only risk is injury, and Zito has shown himself to be remarkably durable.  If Billy Beane knows or strongly suspects that Zito plans to leave or test the free agent market, he should trade him.  I've always assumed Zito is more of a "big market" guy, and he must be influenced by the good experiences of Hudson and Mulder after leaving Oakland.

There is also the question of whether Zito's performance will ever approach his Cy Young year again.  Zito is doing and saying the right things lately, adding a slider and taking an open leadership role.  But he remains inconsistent, and is overly dependent on the umpire's strike zone and willingness to give him the benefit of the doubt on his curveball.  Zito also is a seven-inning pitcher, which reduces his value.  And the statheads will note that his strikeouts have declined in recent years, a sign that the league is catching up to him.

Finally, it would be very expensive - perhaps prohibitively so - to sign Zito to an extension.  Starting pitching, as we saw last winter, is a very valuable commodity.  Teams are quite willing to overpay for it.  The A's would have to overpay for Zito, and that would restrict the team's ability to sign other players, such as Kotsay.

But I don't like the idea of dealing Zito, for several reasons.  

First, it would send the wrong message to the team and its fans.  That message would be:  We won't be a contender in 2006, either.  Zito is one of the team's few stars, and certainly the only one with marquee power and pizzazz.  That's not important on one level, but it makes a difference on another.  Trading Zito would depress fans and damage attendance.

Second, Zito isn't some old veteran hurler who's past his prime.  He's entering what should be the prime of his career.  Zito has no injury history at all, and is making adjustments (such as the slider).  Are we really going to get a package of players in return that will help the A's more than Barry Zito in his prime?  We've already seen that there are plenty of risks in trading for touted pitching prospects (see Calero, Kiko and Meyer, Dan).  And it's not like Oakland is overloaded with starting pitching talent.  At the moment, we're filling out the rotation with Seth Etherton, Kirk Saarloos, and Joe Blanton.  

Third, I'm not ready to give up on 2006.  It's quite possible that the A's could have a strong rotation led by Harden, Haren and Zito.  Beane could fill in the blanks for the other two spots.  If some of our young players develop and Beane trades well, the A's could be right back in the thick of things next year.  But if we trade Zito, I have trouble seeing how that happens unless some desperate team gives up way too much.

In the end, I assume Zito will be traded because he won't really want to stay.  But I think Beane better be sure of that before he pulls the trigger.  The related question involves the new owners, and whether they are willing to pay the money to keep talent.  It would be awfully nice if the team made a commitment to its own young, talented pitcher instead of trading him for a bunch of young players and prospects who may not work out.  

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