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February 21, 2012

The BP First Take

Tuesday, February 21

by Daniel Rathman

Barry Zito is going through deliveries like frat houses go through 30-racks of beer. The latest version is supposed to add drop and drive to his delivery, giving him more momentum toward the plate, and perhaps putting some extra gas on his mediocre fastball.

Unfortunately for the Giants, their $126 million man is not an old dog up to new tricks. Zito has been using this trick—claiming he has altered his mechanics—for five years, giving fans futile hope that he might finally reinvent himself. It has not worked to date, and it probably will not work in 2012.

Zito is coming off a disastrous 2011 campaign, during which injuries limited him to just 53 2/3 big-league innings. He allowed 10 home runs and issued 24 walks over that span, and was generally terrible, with the exception of an early-July surge buoyed by BABIP luck. A portion of that ineffectiveness can be written off on the mid-foot sprain Zito suffered in April, so the 33-year-old deserves some benefit of the doubt.

The problem is that the Giants have given Zito far more than the benefit of the doubt. By sending Jonathan Sanchez to the Royals for Melky Cabrera, and not signing a capable starter to replace him, general manager Brian Sabean effectively locked Zito into the team’s rotation. The Giants have, in recent years, forced Zito to prove himself, using occasional demotions to the bullpen to help him salvage whatever value remained in his left arm. Now, they appear resigned to sinking or swimming with Zito every fifth day.

Sabean’s in-house alternatives are not pretty.

The team’s top upper-minors pitching prospect, lefty Eric Surkamp, was dreadful in his cup of coffee last September, logging a 13/17 K/BB in 26 2/3 innings. Surkamp’s fastball was laughably ineffective, inducing just one whiff per 50 swings. He clearly needs more seasoning.

The team’s minor-league signings this offseason are unlikely to prove fruitful either. Lefty Brian Burres—who was originally picked by the Giants in the 31st round of the 2000 draft—had a 4.66 ERA in Triple-A last season and could not even crack the Pirates’ rotation. Righty Ramon Ortiz is 39, has not pitched effectively in the majors since 2004, and allowed 40 home runs in the best season of his career. Fellow righty Shane Loux, back for a second season with the Giants after tossing 179 1/3 innings for Triple-A Fresno last year, has a 38/36 K/BB in 118 2/3 career big-league frames.

In related news, Ryan Vogelsong tweaked his back while working out on February 7 and will be behind his teammates for the first few weeks of spring training. Back injuries can recur and linger, so Vogelsong and the team are understandably going to be patient.

The Giants need Vogelsong to stay healthy and deliver a worthy encore to his breakout 2011 season. They need Zito’s mechanical changes to yield better results. And they need the three-headed monster of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner to sustain its dominance. Because, despite this reassuring article from MLB.com beat writer Chris Haft, for a team that is so heavily reliant on pitching depth, the Giants simply do not have a lot of it.

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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Premium Article Future Shock: Tampa Ba... (02/20)
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The BP First Take: Mon... (02/20)
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