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Is It Time For Zito To Go?

T.O. Whenham - www.docsports.com
6/26/06

I don't envy Oakland General Manager Billy Beane right now. He's no stranger to hard personnel choices, having had to say goodbye to a bevy of all-stars - Giambi, Tejada, Hudson, Mulder, etc. - during his tenure. But he's faced with a particularly tricky choice this season. Barry Zito is a free agent at the end of the year and there is almost no way that the team can afford to re-sign him. The question of whether Beane should dump the former Cy Young winner has lingered over the Athletics all season, and will only intensify as we near the trading deadline.

Oakland is hot now, but they haven't been playing particularly great baseball most of the season. They also benefit from a weak division. They are in first place, but they wouldn't be in the conversation in any division outside the NL West. The A's will probably stay in first with Zito, but they would have a much harder time holding on without him. Rich Harden may not pitch again this year, Esteban Loaiza has been a drunken disaster and both Dan Haren and Joe Blanton are hit-and-miss, so the team relies heavily on Zito and his 8-3 mark (3.36 ERA), including wins in his last six decisions.

The truth is that Beane only has one decision: he has to trade Zito. The team has been gutted by player departures for years and it's time to get something in return for one of the. There's a bigger point, though - even if they do get to the postseason with Zito they aren't going to do anything when they get there. The A's have been awful in the playoffs with far better teams than this one. They have fought injuries all season, they don't have a batter hitting over .290 and they are relying on the fragile (physically and mentally) and ancient Frank Thomas for more offense than they should be. At least if they trade Zito they have an excuse if/when they falter on the road to, or in, the playoffs. Fans will accept that, along with a couple of solid players from a trade, easier than they will accept another playoff flameout with nothing to show for it.

Both sides are saying the right things. Zito wants to stay in Oakland and Beane isn't shopping him around. Despite that, indications seem strong that he will be wearing a new uniform by the end of July. He would change the betting landscape wherever he goes. He's a profitable play for the A's, so he would be even better on a more talented team that could consistently give him run support. The A's opponents would become more attractive every fifth day, too.

Here's a look at where he could end up and what it would mean:

Yankees - Of course they are the leading choice. Their starting pitching, if I'm being kind, is a bit sketchy. They are behind the Red Sox and in tight with Toronto. Even if they do make the playoffs, they don't really have someone you want to hand the ball to in Game Three or Four. They can obviously afford him and they can re-sign him, which would let Oakland extract a bigger price. The problem they have is that they don't really have any prospects left to send west.

Mets - Zito has said he would like to be in New York if he can't be in Oakland, and for once Shea Stadium is probably more attractive than the cross-town choice. The Mets are dominating a terrible NL East. They already have the second best staff in the majors, but Zito behind Glavine and Pedro would be incredible. They also could afford to sign him long-term, and they really don't have decent options for the back end of the rotation right now. The A's need bats and openly covet Lastings Milledge. With Zito the Mets would instantly become the World Series favorite (more so than they already are).

Red Sox - Boston's biggest motivation for landing Zito would be to make sure the Yankees don't. They could unquestionably use a third starter down the stretch, especially with Matt Clement's woes. Boston is 21-8 in games that Beckett or Schilling start, and 21-20 when they don't. Again, the money won't be a problem, but the proper trade bait could be. The teams in the AL East are close enough together that Zito's arm could be the difference between the postseason and the golf course.

Blue Jays - This isn't as implausible as it sounds. The East is winnable, and the Jays have spent the money to compete. Zito along with super-stud Roy Halladay and eventually A.J. Burnett would be as good a top-three as anyone's. Making it more likely, GM J.P. Ricciardi is a Beane protégé who maintains a good relationship. The Jays have tons of Moneyball-type bats in the system. Toronto likely wouldn't be able to re-sign Zito, so it would be a rental. But it would be money well spent if it got Toronto into the playoffs.

Cardinals - Once he's off the DL, Mark Mulder could join Zito to recreate some of their earlier magic in Oakland. St. Louis is again benefiting from a weak division, but they lack that spark which would make you think they could do any damage in the postseason. A team can only have so many chances at postseason success, so the Cards may be feeling that their last chance is near. They probably need another good arm to take advantage of it.

Tigers - When was the last time that the Tigers were a buyer? The Tigers have accomplished the impossible this year largely because of their starting pitching. Mike Maroth is out and could miss the rest of the season, so Zito would keep the team in the division and wild card race. A postseason berth would be an indescribable boost for this franchise, so they may be very willing to spend the money and the prospects for what Zito can offer.

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