Barry Zito entered the off-season following the 2006 baseball season in a great place. As the most desirable pitcher on the free-agent market, he was in place to make life-changing money in what was to be the biggest contact of his professional career.
He was 28 and was just three years removed from winning the American League Cy Young Award. He hadn’t been the same dominant pitcher the past few years that he had been in 2002, but he was still a highly effective pitcher, maintaining good health and establishing a track record as a constant in a major league rotation.
The San Francisco Giants, not having yet drafted future studs Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, desired an ace pitcher in their starting rotation and agreed to pay Zito $126 million over the next seven seasons to be that guy.
Only he wasn’t an ace and hadn’t been for his final few years in an Oakland A’s uniform.
Lengthy contracts are risky for any player, and there is added risk when they are for pitchers with the injury risk looming. But Zito hasn’t been injured, just ineffective.
The problem with the Giants is that they were paying for what Zito once was, not what he had become and would continue to be.
The Giants have enough payroll flexibility that they have been able to overcome this mistake (largely thanks to young talents like Lincecum and Cain, who were dominant while they were still cheap). The Pittsburgh Pirates have no such luxury.
The Pirates enter this off-season in need of an ace of their own. On the free agent market is Zack Greinke, himself a 28-year-old who is three years removed from an American League Cy Young Award of his own and on a trajectory similar to the one Zito has taken.
Greinke is going to go after ace money this winter and some team will probably give him something close to that amount. But it shouldn’t be the Pirates.
Greinke dominated the American League in 2009, much the same way Zito did in 2002. Since then, Greinke has been good but not great. His ERA is over a run and a half higher than it was in his award-winning season, much as Zito’s was in 2003-06.
Certainly this is not a predictive stat that is claiming that Greinke’s dissension from ace status will continue the same way Zito’s did, to the point that Zito was removed from the Giants starting rotation in 2011 and wasn’t on their post-season roster in 2010. In all likelihood, Greinke will still be an effective starter well into his next contract.
But the risks are there, and so is the history. The Pirates can’t afford to pay ace dollars to a number two or three starter.
If the Pirates are going to shell out dollars for an ace, it needs to be to a pitcher who brings less risk. More importantly, they are likely better off growing their own ace and spending their free agent dollars on hitters, who have historically been a much better return on investment.
The Pirates have a pair of home-grown aces in their farm system in Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon. While prospects are no more of a sure thing than a free agent pitcher, the biggest costs for Cole and Taillon’s services have already been spent in draft bonuses, with six years of team control coming the Pirates way.
Cole could be in Pittsburgh by the end of the 2013 season. Taillon could be up in 2014. Much like the Giants now, the Pirates hope to be led by a pair of home-grown horses as they return to contention.
Even if Zito had continued to pitch the way he had in the four years before he signed his massive free-agent deal, he would still be the third or fourth best starter on the Giants team. In the case of the Pirates, they have two pitchers whose ceilings are above what Greinke has been the past three seasons.
Some team will get sucked in by what could be with Greinke, looking back on his Cy Young season as an incorrect indicator of the future.
The Pirates can’t afford to be that team.