Yes, the A’s should start Barry Zito next week

So I’m pretty sure The Best News of the Week is the just-under-the-wire promotion of 37-year-old Barry Zito by his once-and-now-future team, the Oakland A’s. It’s very cool, and I suspect that most of us are happy for him.

For example!

"This is very cool. Good for Barry, I’m so happy for him," said left-hander Mark Mulder, a member of Oakland’s Big Three along with Zito and Tim Hudson. "And he pitched well at Nashville, it’s not like he had a bad season. I actually was surprised he didn’t get a chance before this."

Assistant general manager David Forst said that the promotion strictly was based on the team’s needs in the wake of injuries and several long games. The A’s called Zito on Monday to see how he was feeling after a shoulder problem that nearly ended his minor-league season. "It’s an all-hands-on-deck situatuon and Barry will be able to give us innings out of the bullpen," Forst said. "He said he is physically able to do that. All along, health was the issue with him and not calling him up."

Forst emphasized that Zito will work only in relief and he will not start against Hudson next week. Hudson, who left Monday’s game with a hip issue, is projected to pitch Sept. 26 at the Coliseum. The team will not consider having Zito start and pitch one inning or two.

"We have not discussed him starting or pitching anywhere other than out of the pen," Forst said. "I don’t think it’s fair to Barry, or medically sound, to try to have him start. That’s not the point of him being here. The point is to save guys in the bullpen who have been overloaded."

Apologies, but I’m not buying this. I’m not buying any of it.

For one thing, Zito did not pitch well at Nashville. Not really. Just being honest, his strikeout-to-walk ratio in Triple-A this season was approximately the same as his last three seasons with the Giants. Remember how well that went? With the 4.97 ERA and everything? Virtually every shred of available evidence suggests that Zito’s not even a replacement-level major leaguer at this point. Probably not all that close. Which is why the A’s haven’t called him up already.

So why’s he coming up now? No, not because the A’s need "innings out of the bullpen." Again, just being honest here, that’s preposterous. Sure, there have been some injuries and some long games. They’re also carrying 15 or 16 reasonably healthy pitchers on their active roster right now. I will suggest there’s never been a moment in major-league history when a manager couldn’t get by quite nicely with 15 or 16 pitchers.

Also, it seems highly unlikely that Zito won’t pitch next week when Tim Hudson’s scheduled to start for the Giants in the Coliseum. So if he’s going to pitch, even for just one inning or two, why can’t he pitch just the first inning or two?

Sure, it’s a stunt. And generally speaking, it behooves teams to eschew stunts, or at least to admit they’re pulling a stunt. If your answer to everything is "baseball reasons," then you can at least claim some shred of plausible deniability when you are pulling a stunt. You know, like this one.

But here’s why I think the A’s won’t commit to starting Zito next week: The game might actually mean something, at least technically. As I’m writing this, the Giants are almost dead … but not quite dead enough to publicly announce that you don’t care much if you beat the Giants or not.

The Giants might be dead enough next week, though. Maybe all it takes is a week of stasis, along with a surreptitious phone call to the men running the Cubs and the Dodgers, just to make sure nobody’s going to be too upset if Barry Zito takes a first-inning bow against a team that has (at this moment) something like a 1-in-100 chance of actually reaching the playoffs.

Obviously, things could change in a week. Either way. But purely in terms of competition, there probably won’t be any reason for the A’s to pitch whomever they like against the Giants.

And if we’re not talking about competition, then what are we talking about? Development? A couple of innings won’t hurt anybody’s development.

What the A’s should be talking about, internally at least, is creating a special experience for their fans and, sure, for Barry Zito too. But mostly for the fans. It’s been a long season for the fans. Why not tell them exactly when they’ll get to see Barry Zito pitch, and for approximately how long? I mean, are they really going to hold him back for a situation that might come along? And when it did, might come along after Tim Hudson’s left the game?

I know things are complicated and even the easiest-seeming decisions aren’t so easy when you’re making them.

But this one seems easy: If Hudson’s able to make his scheduled start next Friday, it’s a bullpen game for the A’s. In reverse alphabetical order.

Sometimes this stuff really is easy.