Zito gives Giants more flexibility

The Giants have stepped up in record fashion, so let’s try to be optimistic about it.

Desperate to find some footing after an offseason of opportunities just missed, the Giants have doled out the biggest contract ever given to a pitcher to Barry Zito, who has won just nine games more than he lost over his last four seasons with a pretty good A’s team.

While it seems crazy to sign a pitcher to a seven-year contract, these are crazy times when it comes to pitching. While an annual salary of $18 million seems outlandish, if the mediocre Gil Meche is worth $11 million, this must be the going rate for a pitcher with Zito’s résumé.

But let’s be honest. Zito’s most attractive attribute is that he’s the right guy right now, a lot like what Alex Smith was to the 49ers at the 2005 NFL draft. The 49ers had no choice then and the Giants had no choice now. They had to do something to bring some life back to the franchise.

So close your eyes, hold your breath and convince yourself that you know Zito will be an effective pitcher all the way through until 2013. That way, there are plenty more positives than negatives to the official beginning of the next era of Giants baseball, with Barry Zito as building block No. 1.

And the Giants are back in their familiar position of trying to build a winning team around Barry — first Bonds, now Zito. Add Matt Cain, Noah Lowry and a bevy of young pitchers to the center of the Giants’ future plans and the future seems a whole lot brighter.

With Zito on board, and the ever-present questions of health and effectiveness that go with the pitching position, the Giants have the potential of having one of the best starting rotations in the National League, with Zito, Cain and Lowry at the core.

All three are 28 or younger and the Giants won’t have a contractual question with a single one of them until 2011. Zito is signed through 2013, Cain won’t reach free agency until 2012 and Lowry’s current deal doesn’t run out until the Giants exercise their option for 2010.

Whether you worry about the wear and tear that goes with Zito’s six straight seasons of pitching 200 or more innings, or you admire the durability, the thing I like most about the addition is it gives Cain more time to develop. It’s too much to ask him to be the Giants’ No. 1 pitcher right now. That’s Zito’s job now and Cain can assume the role naturally, whenever his record deserves it.

I’m in the camp that thinks Lowry will be back on track moving forward in 2007. Last season was a mess and I’m willing to chalk it up to the injury Lowry sustained in his first start. I’ve always loved the way he’s battled and he’s already saying there’s a lot he can learn from Zito.

However, if I’m the young pitcher in that aforementioned bevy that the Giants have decided they can part with, I’d start looking into moving companies. Now Brian Sabean has some flexibility in terms of dealing a young arm or two in hopes of solving some of the Giants’ other problems.

The No. 3 position in the Giants’ order is still vacant and a sweet-swinging first baseman or an outfielder with some power sounds like a terrific next step for the 2007 team. Don’t forget the bullpen is a mess and the closer is still as big of a question mark as the Giants have on the roster.

There’s a lot of work left to be done between now and spring training, but the idea of the Giants going into 2007 with Barry Zito as their ace — finances aside — is the first positive step for the Giants in quite some time.

I’m calling the Zito signing a start and, at this point in Giants baseball, that’s optimism.

Tim Liotta hosts the weekend edition of “Sportsphone 680” on KNBR (680 AM).

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