By Mike Steffanos
I keep reading how the Mets need to open the vault and give Scott Boras everything he asks for in order to bring Barry Zito to New York. Failing that, there are some who advocate trading prospects who are close to major-league ready, such as Mike Pelfrey or Phil Humber, in a trade for mediocre starting pitchers who will be free agents themselves in a year or two. With respect to proponents of both viewpoints, my vote is for "none of the above."
The market has gone crazy, and it seems that Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks is prepared to take another stroll of the deep end. Meanwhile, it appears the Mets have assigned a value as to what Barry Zito is worth to them, and mean to stick to it. They hope Zito might be willing to take a little less to pitch in the spotlight of New York City, but are prepared to move on if he isn't.
As I've said many times in this space, I could live with the Mets giving Zito a 5-year contract along the lines of what Roy Oswalt received from Houston. Still, five years is a long, long time for a starting pitcher. Unfortunately, that's just the reality of today's market. To my mind, however, going past that is like playing Russian Roulette -- if you spin it that many times, there's bound to be a bullet in the chamber sooner or later. Starting pitchers, even ones like Zito who have a good track record of staying healthy, are vulnerable to injuries that could halt or even end their careers rather abruptly. With all the uncertainty around him, aren't you glad Pedro Martinez' contract only runs another two years? I'd love to see Barry Zito taking the mound every 5 days for us next year, provided the deal makes some kind of sense. At 6 or 7 years, I'm not sure it does.
If Plan B involves trades, that's fine with me, but if it involves trading some combination of Lastings Milledge, Mike Pelfrey or Phil Humber for an unglamorous starter that is close to free agency, maybe I'd rather see the Mets roll the dice with what they have. Sure, a lot can go wrong with pitching prospects, but developing even a solid mid- to bottom-of-the-rotation starter that is years away from free agency has a lot of value in the new reality of major league baseball.
Those of you who go back as far as I do remember some pretty good Cincinnati Reds teams from the mid-70s that lacked an imposing starting rotation. The 1975 World Series winning club featured an immortal starting rotation of Jack Billingham, Gary Nolan, Fred Norman, Pat Darcy and Don Gullet -- and this was at a time when starting pitching was much more important than it is today. What the Reds did have was a very good offense, a solid defense, and a bullpen that was the best in baseball. In what was still an era of complete games, manager Sparky Anderson was nicknamed "Captain Hook" for his speed in pulling one of his starters. The formula may not have been pretty by the aesthetics of the day, but it worked to the tune of a championship.
If the Mets have to piece it together again without dominant starting pitching, so be it. Concentrate on being really strong in the bullpen again and trying to develop some of those young starters. Some worry about asking too much from John Maine and Oliver Perez, but the Mets asked a lot of them in the NLCS, and I was rather impressed with their answers. Both seemed to grow quite a bit this past postseason.
History teaches us that when the market really spins out of control, as it did in 2000 and seems to be doing this winter, often the best thing to do is stay out of it for a year. Sometimes the best moves aren't the splashiest or most popular. Sometimes the best moves are the ones you don't make.