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Barry Zito and A Tale of Two Contracts

The San Francisco Giants continue to seemingly glide through the off-season and Spring Training 2011 with few line-up and pitching issues. Will Pablo Sandoval continue to make laser-like contact at the plate and look positively athletic at third base? What will the Giants do with Mark DeRosa, who seems to be on a mission to make up for the time he lost last year, and whose name needs to be somewhere on the daily line-up card? The bullpen appears stocked with about three more qualified candidates than there are open slots.

Hell, the coffee even tastes better and now they’re leaving two mints on the pillow each morning. 

It’s times like these that allow front offices and sports writers to indulge in introspection, specifically in the areas of further fine-tuning and deciding to finally clean up that mess in the corner that isn’t a big deal but can be so annoying. And so the drama-free atmosphere at camp Giants had a mini-explosion a few days ago when San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter Bruce Jenkins reported that the Giants’ front office was “exasperated” with starter Barry Zito after his Spring debut wherein he pitched 1 2/3 innings giving up three hits, five walks, and two earned runs.

Word from an unnamed team source was that Zito was not in shape and the Giants are ready to “buy out his contract” before the season starts.

The club issued the usual denials the following day, but it’s clear the Giants succeeded in sending out several messages regarding Zito. The first message was for Barry Zito: find the motivational fire you need to keep your starting job in the best rotation in the Majors. Zito was left off the post-season rosters throughout last year’s playoffs and World Series and the Giants are making no apologies, nor are they going to allow Zito to sleepwalk through the Cactus League and into the 2011 season.

The second message? That one goes out to the Giants’ top pitching prospects like Jose Casilla, Clayton Tanner and Jorge Bucardo: don’t think the big club’s pitching staff is set in stone for the year because you never know– work hard and be ready.

In the otherwise happy clubhouse of the defending Series champions, Barry Zito’s $126 million seven year contract is the large gorilla sitting on top of the rogue elephant over in the far corner. In another corner of the room is just a large gorilla: Aaron Rowand’s five year $60 million contract. We haven’t heard from Rowand’s gorilla yet, but that could just be a matter of time: Rowand lost his center field job to Andres Torres in June last year, and since that is the only outfield position Rowand can play, his presence essentially takes up an extra roster spot.

The story here isn’t Barry Zito; Zito contributed an average of 10 wins a year the past four years, and pitched 767.3 innings– an average of 192 innings per season. That’s a significant contribution to an average team (and the Giants were below average the first three years of Zito’s contract). For a winning team, those innings and wins coming from a 4th or 5th starter are huge– without Zito’s 9 wins last season, the Giants don’t make the playoffs.

aaronrowandThe real story is why the Giants still have Rowand on the roster. Despite his professionalism and sheer dedication to the team and to the game, Rowand has just not worked out. It is unrealistic to think the Giants would eat the $64.5 million remaining on Zito’s contract when he is actually contributing, but trading Rowand and eating maybe $20+ million of his remaining contract would be a huge addition by subtraction.

Rowand’s presence and lack of defensive flexibility means that players like Nate Schierholtz or Emmanual Burriss might not make this team, and the defensive skills and speed they bring are exactly what the Giants badly need.

Let’s hope the Giants can get something done to move Rowand before opening day 2011.  

Notes
The Giants owe both players a total of $91.7 million over the next four years.
Barry Zito’s contract breaks down this way:
2011 – $18.5m
2012 – $19m
2013 – $20m
2014 – $7m team buyout; a total of $64.5 million.
Aaron Rowand’s contract looks like this:
2011 – $13.6m
2012 – $13.6m; a total of $27.2 million.                 

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