Gwen Knapp: Trade Zito for San Jose?

Today’s column by the Chronicle’s Gwen Knapp posits an unusual trade idea: Barry Zito to the Giants for the territorial rights to San Jose. There would be numerous issues associated with such a deal, but let’s put them aside for a second.

The current consensus is that although A’s GM Billy Beane signed free agent Esteban Loaiza because “you can never have enough pitching,” Beane made the move in part to set up the eventual departure of Zito, who will be a free agent after the 2006 season (and will command upwards of $11 million per year in salary). The presumption is that Zito would be traded for a right-handed slugger, though the player would likely be a young hitter who could be signed cheaply for several years, not a superstar like Manny Ramirez. Targets frequently mentioned include emerging Tampa Bay star (and Bay Area native) Johnny Gomes, or the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Conor Jackson (who attended Cal).

Replace the righty slugger with territorial rights? Is that even possible?

Zito, of course, is the AL’s 2002 Cy Young award winner who had a somewhat underwhelming 2004 but bounced back to have a solid 2005 season, plagued only by terrible run support. A sign of growth has been his enhanced repertoire, which now includes a slider to go with his 12-to-6 curveball (er, 11-to-5) and well-disguised changeup. Durability has never been a question for Zito as it has with former aces (Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson) or current studs (Rich Harden, Joe Blanton). Zito’s fastball has never topped 90 mph, and it can usually be tracked at 88-89 mph. That said, Zito is still considered among the top three among AL lefties, alongside the Twins’ Johan Santana and the White Sox’ Mark Buerhle.

However, Zito is an upcoming free agent. There are precedents that show Beane’s tendency to either move such a player (last year’s Mulder and Hudson trades) or keep him, only to let him go to free agency (Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Johnny Damon). What can be certain is that if a trade of Zito happens, it probably won’t go down during the season since Beane won’t get maximum value.

But is Zito worth the rights to the South Bay? Even if the Giants were to entertain the notion of such a trade? Zito’s value can be mapped out pretty well over the next several years. Territorial rights are much more difficult to quantify, as Peter Magowan has been reluctant to do. Should Zito be traded for the South Bay, the transaction would simply be a reversal of Wally Haas’ conveyance of the territory to the Giants 15 years ago. No money changed hands then, and no money would probably change hands this time on account of Zito’s relatively low salary. The Giants would still need to extend Zito for at least 5-6 years, so that’s money out of pocket, but at least it’s a bona fide ace locked up for several years in a place well-suited to Zito’s hook. With the late season emergence of Matt Cain and Noah Lowry (and to a lesser extent Brad Hennessey), the Giants should have a decent rotation in shape even with the eventual departure of Jason Schmidt.

The problem for the A’s here is that the Giants could simply wait until Zito became a free agent in 2006, in which case the A’s would get little more than a couple of first-round picks for Zito as compensation. But considering the Giants’ predicament, where the window for which Barry Bonds can continue his run for a WS and the career HR crown is coming to a close, the Giants may need to strike while the iron is hot. There’s also the issue of what would happen to the A’s in the short term. The only pitcher not considered a serious health risk is Danny Haren. And it doesn’t solve the A’s search for a righty slugger. The downsides:

  • Depending on health, the A’s rotation will be worse in 2006 than in 2004 and 2005.
  • Trading for the South Bay will be a clear indicator that the A’s intend to leave Oakland for San Jose. That could translate into backlash and lower attendance in the near term.
  • While Zito would provide the Giants a marquee attraction, it still doesn’t answer how much the South Bay means monetarily to the Giants, who could certainly lose a number of casual fans to a San Jose-based team.

Then there’s also the part MLB, the commish, and the owners play in this kind of deal. Since all deals have to be approved by the commish’s office, the gating mechanism is already in place. But it would create an unusual precedent – though one that’s unlikely to be revisited. Would the owners feel that such a trade carries a general threat to the concept of territorial rights, as if they were simply one more negotiating tool? Perhaps. At this point, I’d consider this kind of trade an extremely remote possibility, but considering the fact that Beane’s role as a part-owner blurs the line between the business side and the baseball side, I wouldn’t dismiss it entirely.

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