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Zito's Future? Don't Read Between The Lines, Read The Lines

There is a huge difference between being unpredictable and being dishonest. Just as people "figured out" that the A's were most interested in guys with high OBPs, the A's went out and stockpiled a gaggle of exceptional relievers. Just as people "figured out" that the A's were built on the "big 3," two of them were traded in the same week. Just as people "figured out" that the A's couldn't afford to dabble in the free agent market, they paid $7million/year for a free agent pitcher with somewhat pedestrian career numbers. All of which suggests that one would be wise not to put too much money either way on Barry Zito's future.

But as unpredictable as Billy Beane has been, I have also found him to be utterly honest. He never said he wouldn't trade Hudson and Mulder--which was a notion so unpredictable that nobody really thought to ask. Beane never said he most valued a player with a high OBP; he said he valued the "undervalued," and never went out of his way to correct the many people who acted like he said something else. In his interview with Blez at the beginning of spring training, Beane discussed many players he planned to keep all season, citing Dotel and Zito by name--but he never mentioned Eric Byrnes, whom he traded mid-season.

Billy is sometimes evasive, simply because he can't always say what he is planning to do and he refuses to lie. Billy won't say he's keeping Zito and he won't say he's dealing Zito, because GMs tend not to tell the fans first and then go tell the other GMs. So you have to listen to the few things Beane is willing to say, and infer the rest. At the time of the Hudson and Mulder trades, Beane said the 2005 team would be the worst A's team in the next 5 years, but that the 2005 team could still be competitive in vying for a playoff berth (which it ultimately did). He said the team was built to compete strongly in 2006, and beyond. This is what we know.

Last week, the A's added Esteban Loiaza, leaving fans to wonder even more, "Where does all this leave Barry Zito?" Among Billy Beane's greatest strengths, in my opinion, is his ability to hold the immediate future and the distant future together. Last winter was about "reloading" for the future at the expense of the immediate season--and Beane was up front about that. Anything Beane does this winter will be designed to improve the team now and later, not one or the other. Teams planning to be highly competitive in the coming season don't trade their top starters. I feel confident that Zito will pitch for the A's in 2006, and suspect that (barring a surprising "hometown discount deal)" Zito will then be allowed to walk as another example of a player simply outgrowing the A's capacity to pay him. By then the A's will have had another entire year to develop, trade for, or sign a pitcher who can enhance a rotation anchored by (presumably, at the moment) Harden, Haren, Blanton, and Loiaza. At the moment, putting together everything Beane has said, I think that's the only scenario that fits. So that's my prediction and I'm sticking with it.

By the way, I wrote this Thursday night, so if Zito has already been traded by the time you read this, I just want to go on record as saying: I knew they'd deal him.