The Case for Promoting Barry Zito

With the Oakland A's going nowhere fast in the American League playoff standings, the time to bring back former Cy Young award-winner Barry Zito to the big leagues could be fast approaching.

Little has gone right for the Oakland A’s in 2015. Injuries have played a big part in the team’s first-half struggles, and that injury list is continuing to grow as the team heads into the final weekend before the All-Star break. RHP Jesse Hahn – who had Tommy John surgery early in his career – experienced elbow tightness this week and is scheduled for an MRI. LHP Scott Kazmir left a start early on Wednesday with left triceps tightness. The injury was deemed minor, but Kazmir has had a few of these issues crop up this season.

In the minor leagues, the A’s have several 40-man roster pitchers currently on the Nashville DL. A.J. Griffin has been on the DL since leaving a June 18 start with right shoulder discomfort. Sean Nolin landed on the DL in early July with throwing shoulder discomfort of his own. Both pitchers missed spring training with injuries (Griffin was recovering from Tommy John surgery and Nolin had a sports hernia) and both came back throwing with less than their normal velocity. Reliever R.J. Alvarez is also on the Nashville DL. He is dealing with right forearm discomfort.

The A’s first injury replacement option for their starting rotation has been Chris Bassitt, and deservedly so. The right-hander had a rough spring training, but he has been the Sounds’ best starter this season and has pitched well in limited big league opportunities for the A’s. It would not be a surprise to see the A’s try to find a permanent spot for Bassitt in their rotation during the second-half of the season.

Should the A’s need to fill more than one rotation spot in the coming weeks, their options are a bit limited. Recently acquired RHP Cody Martin has a 2.33 ERA in eight minor league appearances this season (seven starts) and a 38:12 K:BB. He has made one start for Nashville since joining the A’s from Atlanta in a deal that sent the Braves an international signing slot. Martin began the year on the Braves’ roster and had a 5.40 ERA in 21 relief appearances for Atlanta.

With Arnold Leon now firmly ensconced in the Sounds’ bullpen, the rest of Nashville’s current rotation beyond Martin are all non-roster players – Barry Zito, Brad Mills, Zach Neal and the recently promoted Nate Long.

As the A’s enter the second-half of the 2015 season late next week, one has to believe that they are going to be in sellers’ mode. The A’s have played better over the past month, but still find themselves making little headway towards a potential playoff spot. After dropping two-of-three to New York this week, Oakland is 10 games under the .500 mark and 10 games back in the AL West. They are eight games out in the wild card, but in last place in that race.

In an ideal world, the A’s would be able to trade their three impending free agents – utilityman Ben Zobrist, reliever Tyler Clippard and starter Scott Kazmir – for young talent. Zobrist, Clippard and Kazmir are all eligible to receive a qualifying offer and potentially net the A's extra draft picks, but it remains to be seen if the A’s would go that route. They have yet to make a qualifying offer to any of the free agents they have let go the past two off-seasons. [NOTE: this section originally stated that Zobrist and Clippard were ineligible for qualifying offers, but that was incorrect.]

Kazmir may be hard to deal because of concerns about his overall health, but the market should be strong for Zobrist and Clippard. If the A’s do deal Clippard and Kazmir, it will open up two spots on their big league pitching staff, obviously. It will also signal that the rest of the season is about the future and not 2015.

Although a “sell-off” – even a minor one – would be about the future, it could still open up an opportunity for someone from the past: Barry Zito. The A’s signed their former Cy Young award winner and 1999 first-round pick to a minor league deal this off-season. He had a solid spring and was offered an opportunity to pitch for the A’s in Triple-A when he didn’t make the big league squad out of spring training. There is a tacit agreement that Zito can leave the organization at any time should a big-league opportunity arise, but thus far, he has spent the entire season with Nashville.

Zito got off to a slow start with the Sounds, but since April ended, he has been a steady presence in the Nashville rotation. From May 1 on, Zito has a 3.21 ERA and he is averaging just a shade under seven innings a start. His K:BB isn’t spectacular (57:33), but he has allowed just seven homeruns since May 1. Zito has three straight starts of exactly seven innings (including a seven-inning complete game in his last start) and has nine straight starts of at least six innings pitched.

At this stage in his career, Zito is – at best – a fifth starter in the big leagues. If there were young players key to the A’s future in need of a chance in the A’s starting rotation, it wouldn’t make sense to have Zito block them. However, the A’s young starting pitching depth isn’t what it was this spring. Jarrod Parker is out indefinitely and there aren’t any timetables for Griffin and Nolin to return, either. Leon and Drew Pomeranz have moved to the bullpen and look like good fits in that role. Kendall Graveman already has a spot in the A’s rotation and Bassitt could make his spot permanent soon. And even if Hahn’s elbow injury turns out to be minor, he is already nearing his innings total from last year (115.2). It would make sense for the A’s to give Hahn plenty of rest down-the-stretch, especially given this recent issue with his elbow. Jesse Chavez’s recent struggles could also be a sign that his innings will need to be watched closely in the second half.

With all of those factors in play, plugging Zito into the rotation after the trade deadline (assuming the A's have made some deals) makes a lot of sense for the A’s. If nothing else, Zito has the ability to eat innings at the backend of the A’s rotation and provide veteran leadership that could help the A’s younger pitchers grow. The A’s could experiment with a six-man rotation that includes Zito to give their younger pitchers extra rest, or move someone like Chavez or Hahn to the bullpen to keep the innings totals down. A promotion would also reward Zito for the hard work he has put into pitching in Triple-A when he could have walked away after not getting an opportunity with a big league team earlier this season.

Bringing up Zito could help mitigate some of the fan disappointment of the A’s being a trade deadline seller after three straight playoff seasons. The A’s have rarely – if ever – made roster moves based on sentimentality, but, in this case, if the move isn’t going to block any future organizational development, there hardly seems to be a downside in bringing a popular player like Zito back for a swan song with the team sometime in August.

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