San Francisco Giants left-hander Barry Zito sprained a ligament in his foot on Saturday night and had to leave a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

A strained ligament can only be so serious, right?

Listening to manager Bruce Bochy describe the nature of the injury on his KNBR pregame radio show Sunday gave the impression that the Giants organization could be viewing Zito’s freak injury as an opportunity to keep the struggling pitcher out of the starting rotation—for a good, long while.

“He sprained a ligament in the middle of his foot,” Bochy said on KNBR.

“It’s the type injury where Barry could be out two or three weeks…or two or three months. He needs to have some more tests done to determine the severity of the injury.”

Strained foot ligament and he’s out three months?

Zito is in the fifth season of the seven-year, $127 million free-agent contract he signed with the Giants. Zito is 40-45 as a Giant, but has pitched far worse than the record indicates and nowhere near like the Cy Young Award winner he was with the Oakland Athletics

The Giants have tried to minimize the impact of Zito’s struggles on the pitching staff that led the club to the world championship in 2010. For instance, after pitching terribly down the stretch, the 32-year-old was left off of the postseason roster last fall.

He was relegated to the bullpen, briefly, earlier in his career with the Giants.

Zito, however, has never missed a big league start due to injury—never. That made it impossible for the Giants to use the DL to get Zito out of the rotation, in spite of the fact the teams use the DL very creatively to sideline players who are struggling.

Zito’s iron-man reputation kept them from exercising the “dead arm” excuse to a struggling starting pitcher who just needs to disappear.

The New York Yankees put young Phil Hughes on the DL last week with a “dead arm.” His velocity dropped precipitously during spring training and kept dropping when this regular season began.

Hughes has had arm problems in the past, so a “dead arm” it was.

Zito’s fastball topped out at 82 mph on Saturday night in Arizona. Then he strained a ligament in the middle of his foot. The Giants rushed him to the disabled list, replacing him with veteran minor leaguer Ryan Vogelsong early Sunday morning.

Zito could well have suffered the first career-ending ligament strain in the history of Major League Baseball. 

The Giants have an opportunity now to put Vogelsong in the fifth spot in the rotation, keep Zito on the sidelines and do so without answering questions about the $127 million contract or their plan for Zito.

Zito can’t be a big-league relief pitcher and the Giants know that.

Neither the Giants nor Zito would be served by sending him to the minor leagues. 

Now, Zito has given the organization an out—a way to see if Vogelsong can be a low-cost answer in the No. 5 spot in the rotation.

Zito set the bar pretty low and Vogelsong was brilliant in spring training, as well as in his initial starts with Fresno in the Pacific Coast League.

If Vogelsong pitches well in Zito’s absence, the concern ceases to be Zito’s struggles; the concern, rather, will be figuring out a way to keep Vogelsong on the big-league roster and in the rotation.

See how it works?

The Giants can figure out what to do with Zito and spin it as the organization doing him a favor by trading him to a team that’ll pay a portion of his salary and is looking for an innings-eater. They can spin unloading Zito as making room for the feel-good story that Vogelsong is on the verge of becoming.

Zito’s a good dude, no question. He has never drawn much criticism in this spot. The reality is that he and the Giants need to part ways. Whether that happens soon is, largely, in the hands of Ryan Vogelsong and doctors who will struggle to deal with Zito’s pesky injury.

Don’t be surprised if the strained ligament in Zito’s foot ends his career, at least in San Francisco. 


Ted Sillanpaa can be reached at

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