With Zito off market, Mets move on

With Zito off market, Mets move on

NEW YORK -- No team ever has won or lost a pennant or even a game in December. Of that Omar Minaya is certain. So the Mets general manager, while disappointed Barry Zito won't be a Mets pitcher come April, is neither distressed by the impact of Zito signing with the Giants nor convinced that the Mets can't upgrade their starting rotation by an alternative means.

After word of the Giants' agreement with Zito seeped out Thursday, Minaya acknowledged the Mets' acquisition of a quality starting pitcher before Opening Day is a "long shot" but also noted that the Mets still are in the free-agent market, weakened as it now is by the signings of Zito and of Jeff Suppan by the Brewers on Sunday. They are looking to trade, too. But pitching typically is not made available at this stage of the offseason, the Mets trade of Kris Benson last January being an exception.

With Zito and Suppan signed, Minaya sees a dearth of "impact pitchers" available. And the Mets appear to be more inclined to give their own aspiring starters a chance to distinguish themselves than to acquire a more veteran pitcher likely to produce 18-22 decisions and a .500 winning percentage in 30-33 starts.

"I'm not going to make a move for the sake of making a move," Minaya said.

The general manager later mentioned John Maine, Mike Pelfrey and Oliver Perez -- in that order, if sequence is an indication of anything -- and later again added Philip Humber, Jason Vargas and Dave Williams as potential starters.

The Mets essentially were excused from the pursuit of Zito last Friday when the pitcher's agent Scott Boras told Minaya another club had put itself in the "seven-year category" which was to say it had offered to deal of seven years.

The Mets were at least comfortable if not confident when they signed Mike Piazza to a seven-year contract following the 1998 season. And they were delighted when a contract of seven years brought them Carlos Beltran almost two years ago. They saw no great risk in the contracts afforded Piazza, then 30 with six years of catching under his chest protector, and Beltran, 27 at the time of his signing.

Pitchers are a different breed, though. And these Mets consider putting pitchers and seven-year contracts together rather risky business. Minaya explained it all Thursday, saying the club was willing "to be aggressive" in terms of "average annual value" -- i. e., pay -- but that the length of contract was an obstacle, one the Mets were not inclined to consider.

Therefore, the first offer the Mets made -- five years for undisclosed millions -- was their last as well. Whether they would matched, approached or exceeded the average annual value the Giants afforded Zito in the $126 million deal -- $18 million -- is a superfluous consideration. The Mets weren't going to exceed five years.

"The truth is," Minaya said, "I couldn't recommend crossing the bridge [beyond five years] to ownership," he said. Minaya used the word "risk," in terms of injury, several times, although Zito has pitched at least 213 innings in each of his six full big league seasons. Some observers believe Zito, 29 in May, is more of a risk now because he has pitched so many innings -- 1,430.

The Mets' assessment of Zito evidently changed over the year. One member of the club's hierarchy said in January that Zito already was in decline -- not steep decline, but that he was no longer likely to be the dominating pitcher he had been in 2000-2002 -- a 47-17 record in 85 starts. If the Mets had been willing to pay Zito at a high level, at least $17 million annually, they must have seen more than they had seen, that or they felt compelled to protect their sizable investment in the current roster with a pitcher who probably would have benefited from Shea Stadium's pitcher-friendly dimensions and from a change of leagues.

But Shea has two seasons remaining, and the league will learn Zito's stuff well before Citi Field opens its gates in 2009. And seven years is a long time for a pitcher.

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.