Zito poised to cash in, and cash in big

Zito poised to cash in big

If Ted Lilly gets a $40 million contract, and Gil Meche gets a $55 million contract, what does that make Barry Zito worth?

The correct answer appears to be roughly $8.35 kajillion. But that has to be adjusted for inflation.

With the recent round of offseason overpayment for modest pitching talent, the question holds more import than usual, especially for Zito. If you can knock down four- and five-year deals for eight figures per season merely by being competent, what do you get for being the premier starting pitcher of this free-agent class?

Zito is a combination of ability and durability. He's not only highly effective, he's an innings-eater. He's left-handed. He's only 28. His agent is Scott Boras. And the prices for pitching have soared into the stratosphere.

Add it all up, and what do you have? The term "windfall" only begins to cover the financial prospects for Mr. Zito.

And there is something else. We are at the point now where his acquisition appears to be absolutely essential for the teams that are seeking his services.

Take two of the teams that have been most visibly pursuing Zito, the New York Mets and the Texas Rangers. The Mets have a wonderful lineup, but serious pitching issues. Everybody has liked the Rangers' lineup for some time, but they have typically been at least one starting pitcher short of the elite level.

Add Zito to either of those teams, and that team would immediately look like a much better bet for 2007. You don't get that kind of bounce for Lilly or Meche, regardless of how much you paid for them.

There are other clubs that are believed to be interested in Zito. Well, there are 28 other clubs that would like to have him, but there are only a relative few that could actually afford him. On this list are, of course, the New York Yankees, the San Francisco Giants, the Seattle Mariners and the Boston Red Sox, if they cannot sign Japanese ace Daisuke Matsuzaka.

The Rangers have reportedly offered Zito a contract. Let the bidding commence.

Early estimates had Zito getting a total package of at least $80 million. Considering the other pitching contracts, those might now be conservative estimates. A nine-figure deal would no longer be a work of imagination. Inflation, perhaps, but not imagination.

Pitching has always been baseball's most precious commodity. The demand has typically exceeded the supply. But this winter, pitching has been like a combination of the Hope Diamond and PlayStation 3. A lot of people want it, and what makes it even more expensive is that a lot of people are also willing to pay whatever it takes to get it.

It is one thing for the Chicago Cubs, for instance, to lavish millions on a pitcher of relatively modest reputation. But it is another thing when the Kansas City Royals lavish even more millions on another pitcher of roughly the same class.

When the large-market clubs drive up the prices, that is merely the recent economic history of baseball. But when a small-market team stages a similar splurge, it's more than a trend. It's an epidemic.

All of this is good news for Zito. He has created value for himself through the repeated demonstration of his own talent, but the current market has dramatically increased that value. Essentially, Zito has won the lottery -- in several states, simultaneously.

The only thing now is to find out who the lucky winner will be on the other end of this transaction -- the franchise, the employer, the payer. And, of course, there will be the question of the final total, accompanied by a dizzying number of zeroes.

The club that wins this bidding will get Zito, who represents premium pitching value at this point. He will make that club a more likely winner, but he can now be assured that he will not be short-changed in this transaction.

In all likelihood, Zito will not sign with, for instance, the Cubs or the Royals. Nevertheless, he will owe them something, because they gave his market value a big push by signing lesser pitchers for amazing amounts. Part of the beauty of his situation is that he will owe them something, but he will not be expected to pay.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.