By Mike Steffanos
As expected, there's plenty of talk today about a possible Randy Johnson deal and how that might free the Yankees to enter the Zito sweepstakes at a time when some of the more serious players seem to be dropping out. The Rangers seem to be tiring of the impression that they are no more than a means for Scott Boras to ratchet up the final price, and have placed a deadline of this weekend for Zito to take them up on their offer. So far, no team has apparently been willing to give Boras the nine-figure commitment he is said to be looking for.
But now the Yankees are hovering around the edges of this soap opera, possible fallback options such as Jeff Suppan are falling off the board, and Mets fans who want to see Zito in Queens next season are breaking into a cold sweat. I still personally believe that the Yankees interest in the free agent southpaw is overblown, more the product of what some writers see as a logical move for the Yankees than what the Bronx Bullies really intend to do.
For all the logic that some pundits see in Barry Zito in pinstripes, I think the logic against it is more compelling. The Yankees have shown no interest in Zito and are working to cut their bloated payroll. As Murray Chass points out in the Times, Zito's numbers have been slipping against the Yankees' AL east foes. So while it's impossible to completely discount the possibility of the Yankees jumping into the chase, I wouldn't bet the farm on it.
Whether the Highlanders inject themselves into the equation or not, the Mets should not allow that to affect their pursuit of Barry Zito. Whether you agree with it or not, it's been obvious that Minaya and company have not placed the same priority on signing Zito as they have in previous courtships of Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and Billy Wagner. Whereas they were ready to outbid all others to secure those signings, this time they seem to have placed a value on the southpaw that they can to live with, and they appear to be prepared to allow him to walk away if things escalate into a Mike Hampton/Kevin Brown-type deal.
Lisa and I are currently shopping for a house. Our price range will unfortunately keep us away from the type of homes that you immediately fall in love with. Still, we've seen a couple so far that we liked more than all the others, and one in particular that we both could really picture ourselves living in for the next few years. We made a decision going into things that we wouldn't fall in love with any house to the point where we weren't prepared to walk away from it if we made an offer that we thought was fair and the owner balked. In some ways, that's how I see the Mets' efforts with Zito. They've looked at his strengths and weaknesses and what he might bring, and they've placed a value on it. As with home shopping, that works fine, as long as you're willing to walk away if things don't work out. Despite the protestations of some of the pundits, I do believe the Mets are truly prepared to walk away if things get out of hand, and it's not just some posturing to keep the price down.
Because of that, I have more confidence in there being fallback plans in place if Zito doesn't sign. While I have admittedly come around to hoping he does sign with the Mets, I'm a little more relaxed about the possibility that he won't. There's more than one way to skin a cat or compete for a title. As I wrote a while back, in an era when starting pitching dominated the game much more than it does now, the 1975 Cincinnati Reds won a title with a nondescript rotation and an exceptional bullpen. I have confidence that Minaya can find a way if Zito heads elsewhere.
A good friend of mine told me over the holiday that he couldn't live without Zito. He was kidding, I hope, but there was some reflection of how he really felt. He's been riding a rollercoaster with all of the daily speculation. The Yankee rumors have given him severe agita. It's funny, because I was thinking about what he said while I was hiking the other day on a mountain near my house. I was near the summit when I spotted a piece of paper leaning against a tree. It was a note that someone had written to a deceased loved one and left in a spot that I assumed had some significance to them both when they were together.
I read enough of the note to realize what it was and put it back. I don't know whether it was legit or a hoax -- people do weird things sometimes -- but it seemed heartfelt and made me think of the people in my life that I really couldn't live without. Somehow, no baseball players made that list.
Note: This piece was written before Zito signed that insane contract with the Giants, but the sentiments still apply.