Zito is going to strike it rich

Originally Published: December 15, 2006
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Maybe it was the strain of going 48 straight hours without sleep, but Scott Boras sounded less than euphoric after negotiating Daisuke Matsuzaka's six-year, $52 million deal with Boston on Wednesday.

Baseball's most powerful agent found his first big foray into Japan a challenge, to say the least. Factor in a single-minded client, a novel posting system and no potential for a "mystery team" to goose the price, and it's like asking a man to make a deal with his briefcase tied behind his back.

That all changes today, when we welcome back the old Scott Boras -- unfettered, unshackled, and free to conduct business as usual.

Barry Zito
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesZito is the best free agent available and could earn a $100 million contract -- or more.
The D-Mat deal is done, and it's time to focus on B-Zit.

You want predictable? Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee are off the board, the Manny Ramirez trade speculation has petered out, and seven starting pitchers have signed multiyear deals for more than $20 million. That leaves a quirky, charismatic lefty from Oakland to have the headlines and the Internet blogosphere pretty much to himself.

No one knows for sure how interested Barry Zito is in setting aside his acting and musical aspirations to concentrate strictly on baseball, as Boras has suggested. But the track record speaks for itself: At age 28, Zito has a career 102-63 record, a Cy Young Award, three All-Star Game appearances and postseason victories over Roger Clemens and Johan Santana on his résumé.

Just as important, Zito has a low-stress delivery that bodes well for the long haul. He leads the majors with 208 starts for Oakland since 2001, and ranks third behind Livan Hernandez and Mark Buehrle with 1,337 innings pitched during that span.

Some might call him a workhorse. During a press session at the winter meetings in Orlando last week, Boras spoke of Zito's "pristine durability.''

Now it's simply a question of how many teams are willing to pay the toll to cross this bridge.

Even at a price of $14 million-$17 million annually for five to seven years, Boras shouldn't have trouble generating interest. But some of it appears tenuous. The Padres have four starters now that Greg Maddux is in the fold, so it's unlikely they'll pursue Zito with much fervor. And while the Giants have dropped hints that they're interested, some observers think it's just a way to send a signal to the fan base that they're trying.

The Angels have dark horse written all over them. Owner Arte Moreno isn't afraid of bold moves, and signing Zito would give general manager Bill Stoneman the latitude to trade a pitcher -- perhaps John Lackey or Ervin Santana -- for an upgrade at first or third base. It's a scenario the Angels have discussed.

The clear front-runner, from the standpoint of resources and need, is the Mets. If the season began today, manager Willie Randolph's rotation would consist of Tom Glavine (age 40), Orlando Hernandez (carbon-dated), John Maine (8-9 career record), Oliver Perez (Pirates castoff) and either Dave Williams, Mike Pelfrey or Philip Humber.

"I think we have a better rotation right now than we had the second half of the season,'' Mets general manager Omar Minaya said Thursday, "and our bullpen is better. I'm definitely OK with our rotation.''

Still, it's hard to believe Minaya would be satisfied standing pat. Even with a deep bullpen and an offense that ranked third in the league in runs, the Mets' rotation is inferior to the ones in Atlanta, Florida and Philadelphia, where Charlie Manuel will run out Freddy Garcia, Brett Myers, Adam Eaton, Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer in succession. That's assuming GM Pat Gillick trades Jon Lieber for bullpen help, which has been widely speculated.

Publicly, at least, Minaya is laying low on Zito and talking in generalities. It's reminiscent of the approach that Yankees GM Brian Cashman used to sign Johnny Damon away from Boston last year: Just wait for the speculation and the posturing to play out, make an offer you're comfortable with, and swoop in for the kill.

"We're keeping an eye on it,'' Minaya said, in response to a question about the Zito market and the Mets' place in it. "We know what we want and what we're able to do depending on how we value the player.''

Meanwhile, the Mets continue to explore trades. They've talked to Oakland about Rich Harden and Dan Haren, with the usual Lastings Milledge-Aaron Heilman package being bandied around as bait. But sources said those discussions are no longer active.

The longer Zito remains unattached, the more the anticipation will snowball. At the Mets' holiday party this week, Randolph conceded it would be nice to have Zito in the rotation, and third baseman David Wright publicly volunteered to take Zito on a tour of New York. Think someone from Boras' office isn't filing away those news clips for future reference?

As for Zito's other main suitor, the Texas Rangers, who knows? Although Zito has an 11-1 career record and a 3.75 ERA in Arlington, that 0.87 career ground ball-fly ball ratio could make him a bad fit at Ameriquest Field over the long term.

During Zito's recent visit to Dallas, the Rangers treated the pitcher to sushi for lunch and Mexican food for dinner, and Boras denied that his client is wedded to the idea of playing on the East or West coast. He used the term "geographically free.'' Then Texas owner Tom Hicks began gushing over Zito, and some Rangers fans had Chan Ho Park flashbacks.

Maybe this is a case of Boras playing Hicks like a harpsichord. Or Hicks could just help drive up the cost of business for the Mets.

Zito's decision to leave agent Arn Tellem for Boras last summer said a lot about his desire to go for the green, but the Mets are attractive for reasons other than money. Zito's style of pitching is well-suited to Shea Stadium, and he thrived under New York pitching coach Rick Peterson during their time together in Oakland.

Zito also stands to have a higher national profile and make more in endorsement income in New York than as an urban cowboy in Dallas. Once Boras sees beyond the introductory press conference and the commission, he understands the value of big-market hype as well as anyone.

"I think being on one of the coasts is what Barry has had in mind all along. But an extra 25 million bucks might change his mind."
-- A baseball acquaintance

The process could really get interesting if the Mets hold firm in the $75 million neighborhood while the Rangers dive in headfirst. Then we'll know if this is about Boras' wowing people with his latest nine-figure deal or Zito's asserting his will upon the negotiations.

During a recent interview at a charity event in California, Zito seemed relatively detached from the process -- a surprise to some given his meticulous approach to pitching and detail-oriented nature.

"I think being on one of the coasts is what Barry has had in mind all along,'' said a baseball acquaintance. "But an extra 25 million bucks might change his mind.''

Maybe Barry Zito is one of those lucky free agents who lands in the city he wants and hits the mother lode financially. As decision day draws near, Boras isn't the only one who'll be losing sleep.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer