I’m Back — Where’s Barry Zito ?

Remarkably, the dozen or so teams that had supposedly been clamoring for Barry Zito’s services have died down to maybe three … or is it two? Reports are that the Mets, Rangers, and Giants are among the teams inquiring about Zito. The Giants? Are you kidding me? They were nowhere to be found a month ago, BEFORE spending a heap of cash on the Other Barry, yet now, just a few days after the Dice-K deal is wrapped up, the Giants are a player in the Zito sweepstakes.

Yeah, right.

Sounds more like the Boras propaganda team has been whipped into full force, creating rumors and quotes from “official sources” to drum up the price on his non-ace. By Christmas Eve, no doubt a new dozen teams will be entered in the fantasy foray, to compete (in the rumor mill at least) with the only legitimate contenders — the Mets and Rangers.

Scott Boras has some big problems on his hands right now — for the first time in years. First, he “lost” in the negotiations for Matsuzaka with the Bosox. Boras was demanding a $100M salary, while Theo Epstein stuck to his plan of a $100M total investment. That’s a $50M difference, or 50% reduction (hmm, does that mean Zito is available for $50M as well?). He may lose again to the Red Sox this week, after more doctors look at J.D. Drew’s shoulder, and the contract is reworked as non-guaranteed.

A few other things happened on Boras’s way to the negotiation table: the Cubs spent all their money. And the Yankees appear to be done, as they signed the D-Mat Door Prize, and they’re looking to REDUCE their payroll for the first time since the collapse of the Byzantine Empire. The Dodgers are out, too, having blown their wad on Jason Schmidt and Randy Wolf. The Angels are more interested in blowing their cash on journeyman outfielders. And Boras has already drained the Red Sox dry … though they were never interested in Zito anyway. In other words, the high rollers have left the table, and the list of teams who can afford Zito is fading — fast. Outside of the numbskull Rangers and our beloved Mets, there are no big spenders left to bid on Barry Zito.

With Boras in a losing streak and reeling, the Mets shouldn’t back down from their supposed 5-year / $75M limit. Hopefully, they won’t go to the 6th guaranteed year, and won’t go into nine-digit territory — Zito just ain’t worth it, and the Mets don’t need him that badly, over that many years.

A long-term deal for a pitcher closing in on 30 is a Bad Plan. It was a Bad Plan during the infancy of free agency, in the 1970s, when Catfish Hunter, Wayne Garland, and Don Gullett were given (at the time), astronomical, long-term deals. It is still a bad plan in the 21st Century, watching guys like Mike Hampton, Kevin Brown, and Denny Neagle struggle to stay healthy, much less earn their bloated salaries. Youth doesn’t help much either — look at how well Carl Pavano, Chan Ho Park, and Russ Ortiz have fared recently. Scary, really, when you think back to the time when all of these guys signed their whopping contracts — every one of them looked then strikingly familiar to Barry Zito today.

That’s not to say Zito won’t buck the trend, and be one of the first long-term-deal free-agent pitchers to make good on his contract. It’s just to say, the gamble is large enough as it is, talking about 5-years / $75M … especially when the Mets can make do with what they have. They have enough depth to trade for a reliable innings-eater — a Freddy Garcia or Livan Hernandez type — and within two years should have at least one Zito-type quantity, or maybe even two, among their bevy of young arms (Humber, Pelfrey, Maine, Perez, etc.).

True, the Mets need a front-of-the-rotation starter. Or at least, we think they do. Omar knows best, however, and when he says, “I’m comfortable going into 2007 with what we have”, he’s not just playing poker. There’s a part of him that knows if Zito signs elsewhere, the Mets will be fine. After all, they had arguably the worst starting pitching of any 2006 postseason team, yet dominated the National League. They also have youngsters on the cusp, who are among almost ten candidates vying for 5 spots in the rotation. Omar knows that after El Duque and Tommy Glavine, there will be three guys in his current collection that will become at least solid, if unspectacular, starters. And who knows, a guy like Pelfrey or Humber could very well surprise everyone and become the Justin Verlander or Francisco Liriano of 2007. Oliver Perez could return to his 2004 form, when he was mentioned in the same breath as Dontrelle Willis. John Maine should continue to develop into a decent back-end guy. Dave Williams could finally mature into a solid Glendon Rusch-type #5 starter. Or Alay Soler could bounce back. Maybe the Mets brass will finally come to their senses and place Aaron Heilman where he belongs. In any case there’s enough talent being thrown at the wall that something will stick — enough for Omar to confidently say “no thank you” to Scott Boras when the price gets too high.

Please Omar, stick to your guns. Get Zito at YOUR price. Let the Rangers bid against themselves (apparently they didn’t learn from their Chan Ho Park disaster). There’s no one else to compete with, despite the made-up hype coming out of the Boras camp.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.