Roll over, Max Scherzer and tell Jon Lester the news: This offseason's free agent market offers a starting pitcher with both a Cy Young and a world championship ring, a combination that neither of them can claim. That's because 36-year-old Barry Zito is making a comeback after sitting out the entire 2014 season. Agent Scott Boras' phone must be ringing off the hook.
Well it probably is, but the calls to the superagent likely aren't coming for Zito, who was last seen putting up a 5.74 ERA across 133 1/3 innings for the 2013 Giants. That was the final year of a seven-year, $126 million deal that Zito signed with San Francisco in December 2006 — at the time the largest contract in baseball history ever given to a pitcher, and still quite possibly the worst. In that span, Zito went 63-80 with a 4.62 ERA (87 ERA+) over 1,139 1/3 innings, good for all of 3.0 Wins Above Replacement, with a high of 2.6 in 2009 and a low of −2.6 in that final year.
Nonetheless, the Giants won two World Series titles during his tenure, and while Zito wasn't on the postseason roster in 2010, he came up huge in 2012, throwing 7 2/3 innings of shutout ball in Game 5 of the NLCS against the Cardinals when San Francisco was on the brink of elimination, then delivering 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball in World Series Game 1 against the Tigers. He was so bad the following year, however, that general manager Brian Sabean resisted the temptation to pick up Zito's $18 million option for 2014, choosing instead to pay a steep $7 million buyout.
On Wednesday, Boras told reporters gathered at the GM meetings in Phoenix that Zito called him in August and said, "I'm ready to go. I want to pitch." After spending the year traveling and surfing — long his favorite pastime —Zito, who moved to Houston in September, is eyeing a return to the majors as a starting pitcher.
While Zito’s tenure with the Giants may have been rocky, Boras feels as though it established the free-spirited lefty's credentials as a mentor. Via ESPN's Jerry Crasnick:
"You hear honest and valued owners say, 'You know, Barry Zito's contract was wonderful, because we won two world championships. We hired a hen to sit on our eggs of (Matt) Cain, (Tim) Lincecum and (Jonathan) Sanchez, and look where our system is because we had a guy who could take on the No. 1 role for a couple of years and put us in that position,''' Boras said.
If you want proof that Boras is fallible, consider the extent to which he might have increased Zito's market had he dropped the name of 2014 World Series MVP Madison Bumgarner among those protégés instead of Sanchez, who after posting up a 4.70 ERA (88 ERA+) across eight major league seasons couldn't make it through a single minor league inning in 2014.
Jokes aside, Zito was once a very good pitcher. A 1999 first-round pick out of USC, he joined the A's rotation in mid-2000, and alongside Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder helped the A's to four AL West flags and a wild-card berth in a seven-year span (2000-06). Zito earned All-Star honors three times in Oakland, and in 2002 went 23-5 with a 2.75 ERA en route to the AL Cy Young award. The A's of that period owe a whole lot of their success to "the Big Three," though their role was highly understated in Michael Lewis' Moneyball even though GM Billy Beane emphasized his belief in drafting collegiate players — Hudson was chosen out of Auburn, Mulder out of Michigan State — as opposed to high schoolers.
Hudson, of course, is still going strong; he joined the Giants as a free agent last winter, helped them win this year's World Series and ranks as the active leader in wins with 214. Mulder hasn't pitched in the majors since 2008 due to ongoing rotator cuff woes that had limited him to four major league starts over a two-year span. He attempted a comeback this past spring with the Angels but didn't even make it out of February before rupturing his left Achilles tendon, which required surgery and led to his release.
Unless Zito has added a new pitch — a knuckleball, say — or restored some velocity to a fastball that averaged just 82.6 mph in his final season, he may not last long either. Perhaps he could take a page from Zach Duke, a journeyman starter who reinvented himself as a reliever by going sidearm, then delivered a 2.45 ERA while striking out 11.4 per nine in 74 appearances for the Brewers in 2014. Mulder, too, only got as far as he did on the comeback trail because he reworked his delivery.
Odds are that Zito's comeback won't amount to much, but for the moment, it rates as a curiosity. And if it doesn't work out, he's always got his surfboards.