MESA, Ariz.—Barry Zito wanted to keep a low profile this spring. It’s not quite working.
Zito, the former Oakland ace who came back to baseball after a one-year absence by signing a minor league deal with the A's in February, is trying to make it back to the majors with the team that drafted him in 1999. And though he was just a non-roster invitee for the A’s this spring training, Zito has shown flashes of the Cy Young winner he once was. He threw 13 consecutive scoreless innings before being tagged for seven runs on Tuesday, but despite that rough outing he still has an outside chance of starting the season with Oakland.
Whether he does or not, his presence has been felt all spring in an A's clubhouse filled with players who would love to have the kind of career the 36-year-old Zito has put together, one that includes the 2002 American League Cy Young Award with Oakland, two World Series titles with the Giants and a seven-year, $126 million contract that was, when he signed it after the 2006 season, the richest ever given to a pitcher.
"It’s really cool just to have someone at his level," catcher Steven Vogt said. "Everyone in this room knows who he is. He’s the Cy Young award winner."
Luke Carlin, another catcher, said that though Zito is very quiet, especially compared to the other personalities in the clubhouse, he is very engaged one-on-one and when he is on the mound. He’s very deliberate and very intentional. The guys who have had the type of career he’s had don’t get there by chance. He’s very methodical with what he’s doing."
Yet another catcher, rookie Carson Blair, who sits next to Zito in the locker room, said he was grateful for the opportunity to learn how to prepare from the veteran pitcher.
"He likes to write down his thoughts so he can go back to it and just be a lot more accountable," Blair said. "A lot of times young guys don’t really understand the mental side and thought process and stuff that goes on. And you see him watch video on himself and write things down. From an external perspective, I feel like that just helps him and keeps him accountable and a reminder of things he can control."
Zito has not pitched in a regular-season game since Sept. 29, 2013, with San Francisco. He finished that year 5-11 with a 5.74 ERA and struggled with his velocity. At season's end, the Giants declined Zito’s $18 million option for 2014.
Yet this spring, Zito has looked closer to he did when he was a three-time All-Star with the A's from 2000-06. Alan Jaeger, a throwing consultant who has known Zito since the pitcher was 19 and said he has seen him throw at least 200 bullpen sessions over the years, said he was really impressed after seeing Zito pitch this spring.
"His velocity is better and his breaking ball looks more like when he won the Cy Young," Jaeger said. "His changeup may be better than it has ever been."
That is a bold statement considering Zito hasn’t had a season with an ERA under 4.00 since his final year in Oakland. In seven years with the A’s, Zito went 102-63 with a 3.55 ERA. In his next seven seasons, all with San Francisco, Zito went 63-80 with a 4.62 ERA, though he did have some impressive showings in their run to the 2012 World Series title.
Zito didn't officially retire after the '13 campaign, and after a year of surfing and spending time with his wife and newborn son, he decided he wanted to attempt a comeback. To get back, Zito had to immerse himself in baseball again. He moved to Texas so he could train with Ron Wolforth, an instructor who specializes in increasing a pitcher’s velocity. Fellow A's lefthander Scott Kazmir also worked with Wolforth when he found himself out of baseball for a significant time. Kazmir, who made just one major league start in 2011 and was released by the Angels in June of that year, turned to Wolforth for help. In '13, Kazmir was a non-roster invitee to Indians camp but turned it into a spot in the rotation and, after going 10-9 with a 4.04 ERA, signed a two-year, $22 million deal with Oakland.
"It’s tough," Kazmir said. "It really is. Just because baseball is such a repetitious sport that once you’re out of the game for a little while it’s tough to get your bearings back and get going again. You want to get back in the swing of things and you want everything to go exactly as planned, but it’s going to be that gap that you were off out of the league. You’re going to feel a lot better as the year goes on and even next year."
One challenge for Zito is that he may not have the luxury of that time and those repetitions because he is in a competition for a roster spot.
Zito is surrounded by pitchers, some of whom the A’s have acquired in an effort to build their rotation after two pieces they traded for last season, Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija, are now with the Cubs and White Sox, respectively.
Sonny Gray will start Opening Day for the A’s, and Kazmir will likely be the team’s No. 2 starter. The other three spots will likely come from the group of Jesse Chavez, Kendall Graveman, Jesse Hahn, Drew Pomeranz and Zito.
Despite his competition, Zito said he just has to focus on himself.
"I'm not schooled up on everybody in here," Zito said. "You work hard, you do what you’ve got to do, and the rest will take care of itself."
In six appearances this spring, Zito has pitched 19 2/3 innings, giving up 15 hits, 11 runs and five walks while striking out 13. His ERA had been 2.30 entering Tuesday but jumped to 5.03 after getting shellacked by the Angels, which included yielding three home runs.
After his second outing earlier in March, A's manager Bob Melvin said Zito needed to show "some consistency" and look "crisper" every time he pitches in order to have a chance to make the team.
"He knew coming in that the odds are a little longer than some of the guys we’ve traded for," Melvin said. "But that’s where performance for him comes into play. You never know where it’s going to go as far as injuries, too.
"If you pitch well, you have a chance. We didn’t bring him in just to bring him in. We brought him in because the potential was there for him to possibly make the team."
Zito wouldn’t say whether he would accept a job in the bullpen or a role on the minor league team if he doesn’t earn a job in the starting rotation.
"I'm prepared to start," Zito said. "That’s what I’m looking for."