Barry Zito's name is right there in the headline, so there isn't a chance for a big reveal here. But if you strip his name and salary from his last few years, here's what you get:
|2009||33||106||Come on, I'm eating here.|
|2011||13||61||Oh. Oh, no. No, no, no.|
Those first four seasons are the very definition of a back-of-the-rotation guy. Not awful enough to lose his job, but not nearly as bad as a replacement-level player would be. A majority of teams in the league had to deal with pitchers who were much worse than that. Zito pitched well enough for a while that the Giants didn't have to dig through their AA rosters to find someone who wasn't ready.
But Zito pitching like a lefty Danny Darwin isn't going to get him extra brownie points. He's making enough money to buy his own private island*, and he was supposed to be the face of the franchise after Barry Bonds left. The Barry-to-Barry transition of power wasn't seamless. For a while, though, Zito wasn't a total waste of money. Big cheers for small victories.
The season he had last year was the tipping point. Uninspiring mediocrity is something fans will tolerate from an overpaid player. Abject suck is not. In his fifth season with the Giants, the bloom was off the Barry Zito rose. Also, the rose was a dandelion with one scraggly looking spore left hanging from it. Also, you traded your car for it.
So when Bruce Bochy went on a Bay Area radio station and said ...
I'm not gonna hide from it: Barry Zito is our 5th starter next year.
... it's going to cause a bit of a stir. After the Jonathan Sanchez trade, a lot of Giants fans did hide from it. Willingly. The unspoken reality was that Sanchez's departure opened up a spot for Zito. Before Bochy confirmed that it was Zito, it was easy to ignore the situation. Maybe a free agent NRI Eric Surkamp something mumble mumble fifth starter. Nope. Zito.
Look at the table above one more time, though. Forget the name. Pretend it's a pitcher who will make just a million or two next year. Which year looks like the outlier? It's four years of boring-yet-not-repulsive followed by one season of repulsive. His fastball velocity was lower last year than it has been in the past -- hard to do -- but his velocity at the beginning of the season is usually lower than it is at the end. In 2011, he didn't really have an end of the season. He's probably the same Zito.
Which isn't good. It also isn't that bad. It's probably bad. Not as bad as you think. Just like that tale about the Inuits having 50 different words for snow, there are dozens of shades of bad for Zito. Most of them aren't that bad. Considering how many wretched pitchers will harm their teams' chances in 2012, being only sort of bad is actually sort of good for a fifth starter.
You will have Zito to kick around any more but, gentlemen, this is still probably his last chance. And if he doesn't get off to a hot start, he could be a fifth starter for a league-minimum salary on another team ... when the Giants release him. At least the expectations wouldn't strangle him at his new job.
* Zitopia, where the only rules are that there are no rules, bro, except maybe the one that says you should turn that Dave Matthews CD up