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The Yankees Should Trade for Barry Zito

Few contracts in recent baseball history have attracted more ridicule than the seven-year, $126 million deal the Giants gifted to Barry Zito. Apparently still dazzled by Zito’s 23-5 record, 2.75 ERA and Cy Young award four seasons earlier, Brian Sabean ignored Zito’s more pedestrian peripheral stats, threw a mint at him, and instantly became the proud owner of one of the worst contracts in professional sports.

Which is exactly why the Yankees should trade for him.

If there’s one resource the Yanks have readily available, it’s money. Even if we assume a payroll around last year’s figure of $213 million (never mind that they’d turn a healthy profit with a $300 million payroll), there are dollars left to be spent. Andy Pettitte‘s retirement blows a hole in the Yankees’ rotation — but it also makes room for an eight-figure salary, with New York’s projected 2011 outlay now hovering around $200 million.

Further, Brian Cashman has been (wisely) reluctant to part with elite prospects to acquire stopgap veterans. If Felix Hernandez magically became available via trade tomorrow, sure, Jesus Montero, Manny Banuelos and company…come on down. But a pitcher of Felix’s caliber isn’t likely to become available, not today, and probably not at the trade deadline either.

That leaves the free agency market, which is alarmingly thin at this point. The Yankees have already scraped the bottom of the barrel, taking flyers on Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia. Kevin Millwood‘s name has been floated, though Buster Olney Tweeted that Millwood is asking for $4 million to $5 million on a one-year deal. Even if Millwood lowers his price, banking on three quality starters from a group that includes Colon, Garcia, Millwood, Sergio Mitre, Ivan Nova, and yes, A.J. Burnett is asking a lot.

Which brings us to Zito. There is no iron-clad guarantee that he’ll pitch well in 2011, even with the Giants in AT&T Park, let alone in the AL East, braving Yankee Stadium’s launching pad. But there’s some potential for success.

Start with Zito’s durability. He’s never spent a day on the disabled list in his entire 11-year major league career, starting 32 or more games every season since becoming a full-time starter in 2001. Though he’s getting pulled earlier in games now than he did earlier in his career, Zito has still averaged 192 IP per season in his four years with the Giants. A cynic might argue that all those innings don’t do much good if the pitcher throwing them isn’t all that great. This ignores just how bad a replacement-level starter is. In the Yankees’ case, there’s no Madison Bumgarner or Jeremy Hellickson poised to step into the rotation if one of the top five go down. Barring a trade or an unlikely prospect blossoming, you’d likely be looking at a true replacement-level type as an injury replacement.

The second argument in Zito’s favor is his rebound, however modest, in the past two seasons. In a conversation last spring, Zito noted that, before the 2009 season, he’d gone back to the long-toss regimen he’d used in college and earlier in his career, which he believed helped improve his arm strength and velocity. While it’s tough to verify the former, the latter bears itself out: Zito threw his fastball, slider and curve harder in the past two years than he had since he was with Oakland.

His pitch selection has also changed, suggesting a possible cause for his modest improvement in the past two years — beyond mere random chance or statistical noise. Though we should be careful about putting too much faith in pitch classification, the jump in Zito’s reported slider usage is significant: 9.8% of Zito’s pitches in his ugly 2008 season (4.72 FIP/5.34 xFIP) were sliders, vs. 18.6% in 2009 (4.31 FIP/4.46 xFIP) and 14.5% in 2010 (4.25 FIP/4.77 xFIP).

All things being equal, you’d also prefer a left-handed pitcher in homer-happy Yankee Stadium than a right-handed pitcher — especially if your man is a flyball specialist like Zito. StatCorner.com notes that the home run park effect for lefty hitters in Yankee Stadium was 124 last season, vs. a still high but more moderate 110 for right-handed hitters. Zito’s career splits aren’t huge (0.88 HR/9 IP, 4.23 FIP, 4.52 xFIP vs. lefties; 1.00 HR/9 IP, 4.45 FIP, 4.78 xFIP vs. righties). But they’re enough, when combined with hitters’ own typical splits, to prompt a manager to deploy more righty hitters with Zito on the hill. You would expect Zito to give up more homers in Yankee Stadium than he did in Oakland or San Francisco; but the damage could be more contained than it might for an aging right-hander like Garcia, Colon, or Millwood.

There’s also the matter of the Yankees’ likely outfield configuration. As Matt Klaassen ably noted, Brett Gardner could conceivably turn into Nyjer Morgan, with Gardner’s 22 defensive runs saved last season proving to be an aberration. What we can safely say, however, is that Gardner ranks among the best fly-chasers in baseball, and does a much better job of saving runs than his right-field counterpart, Nick Swisher. A left-handed flyball pitcher like Zito thus gains another little edge if he prompts more righties to swing against him, thus pushing more balls in the air toward left or left-center field.

But the most compelling argument for Zito, oddly, is his price. Which is to say, his asking price. Brian Sabean has made his share of curious moves over the years, his World Series ring notwithstanding. But it’s hard to imagine he’d think twice about unloading the last three years (plus an option) of Zito’s massive contract, especially with the front four of his rotation ranking with any other front four outside Philadelphia. Even potentially available pitchers with fairly modest resumes like Paul Maholm or Fausto Carmona would likely require a lot more talent in return than Zito would, given their much more desirable contract status, and youth.

Meanwhile, trading for Zito would essentially be acquiring a free agent, only without surrendering any compensation picks. If the Giants were to pick up half of the guaranteed $64.5 million left in Zito’s deal, he would still likely cost next to nothing in trade. Paying a potential 2-win pitcher about $11 million a year for the next three seasons — even if Zito slips a little with age — isn’t the worst outcome for a Yankees team that sorely needs some rotation stability, and has more of a win-now mandate than just about any other team in any sport.

Of course there is one last option for the Yankees: Go into the season with what you have, see what happens, and maybe think about a deadline deal. For a team with such bountiful resources, that’s a puzzling suggestion. The Red Sox look like clear favorites in the AL East. The Rays are primed for another potential playoff run; a somewhat suspect bullpen isn’t nearly as scary as a potentially lousy three-fifths of a rotation. Even the loser of the AL West battle between the Texas Rangers and Oakland A’s could be a very strong Wild Card contender this season, especially with light competition behind them. If the Yanks wait too long, they might fall too far behind the competition to make it back to the big dance.

To maximize their playoff chances, the Yankees should do something soon. Barry Zito could be the simplest route to 2 more wins in 2011.