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Rangers, Mariners missed out after drafting Zito

MLB.com @Sullivan_Ranger

Alex Rodriguez was the Rangers' shortstop in 2002 when he was asked what crossed his mind when he thought about the missed chance of Barry Zito being his teammate in Texas.

Zito was on his way to winning a Cy Young Award for the Athletics and Rodriguez, in an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, answered with some fairly colorful language.

Alex Rodriguez was the Rangers' shortstop in 2002 when he was asked what crossed his mind when he thought about the missed chance of Barry Zito being his teammate in Texas.

Zito was on his way to winning a Cy Young Award for the Athletics and Rodriguez, in an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, answered with some fairly colorful language.

"I'm a big Barry fan," Rodriguez added. "He has been phenomenal."

Rodriguez actually had two chances to be Zito's teammate. The Mariners drafted Zito in the 59th round of the 1996 Draft out of high school and the Rangers took him in the third round in '98 out of junior college.

Both teams did not sign Zito. Instead the Athletics took him in the first round of the 1999 Draft out of the University of Southern California. That same year, the Rangers drafted Colby Lewis out of Bakersfield College. That Zito ended up in Oakland instead of Seattle or Texas had a huge impact on the American League West in the decade to follow.

:: 2018 Draft coverage ::

The Athletics won five division titles in seven years from 2000-06 with a rotation headed by Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson. The Mariners have not been to the playoffs since '01. The Rangers missed out in a 10-year period from 2000-09, when Zito was in his prime.

During those seven years, Zito was 12-2 with a 3.62 ERA against the Mariners and 17-5 with a 3.76 ERA against the Rangers.

"It would have made a difference if we had signed him," former Rangers general manager Doug Melvin said. "You would love to have a guy like that. But, at the time, our ballpark was a big hitter's park and Oakland's was a big pitcher's park. He may not have put up the same numbers in our ballpark. He would have put up good numbers, but not same numbers. At our ballpark, balls were flying out of there."

It's hard to criticize the Mariners for not signing Zito when he was a 59th-round pick. Zito had been a star pitcher at the University of San Diego High School, but he was not a hard thrower or a top prospect. Successful high school pitchers who didn't throw hard were everywhere.

The Mariners went heavy on pitching in that Draft. Beginning with Gil Meche and Jeff Farnsworth, Seattle's top five picks, and 17 of their first 21 selections, were pitchers. Zito had a chance to pitch at the University of California Santa Barbara, rather than be at the lowest end of the Mariners' pitching chain.

Former Rangers infielder Michael Young played with Zito at UCSB and said the left-hander was not considered a big-time prospect when he arrived.

"He wasn't when he got there, but he had a monster freshman year and really put himself on the map," Young said. "We loved Barry. Great dude and the vibe at UCSB really suited him. Great weather, laid-back atmosphere. I loved Barry because he was a great easy-going guy off the field but then he'd turn cold blooded when he got on the mound."

Zito was a freshman All-American at UCSB in 1997 and then decided to transfer to Pierce Junior College in Los Angeles so he would be eligible for the '98 Draft. Otherwise, he would have had to wait until after his junior year at UCSB.

Zito had another big year at Pierce and the Rangers took him in the third round. Zito was disappointed that he had fallen to the 83rd overall pick, telling the Los Angeles Times that he expected to be drafted higher. That was a tip-off Zito would be tough to sign.

"We knew it was a long shot and that we would have to overpay for him," Melvin said. "He had a good curveball and knew how to pitch. He wasn't overpowering, but that was the right spot to pick him."

Zito had committed to USC but was still hopeful the Rangers would come around with the money. Zito was looking for $350,000 and the Rangers were offering $300,000. Neither side would budge from there.

The Rangers told Zito that the longer the process took, the lower their offer was going to go. Zito's camp responded by suggesting their asking price would only increase. The possibility of Zito pitching for the Rangers disappeared.

Tom Hicks had just bought the Rangers the previous winter and was waiting for approval from the other owners. He received it on June 16, but was still nervous about going against other owners by overspending on players.

"Tom Hicks just didn't feel comfortable," Melvin said. "He didn't want to make the other owners mad by paying more than what would have been slot money, what a guy taken at that point should get."

That same Draft, the Rangers were considering taking Matt Belisle, a high school pitcher from Austin who had committed to the University of Texas. The Rangers decided against it because they thought it would cost too much money, But the Braves took him in the second round and overpaid to get him.

Hicks was not happy that Belisle -- a Texas high school product -- had escaped over money.

By 2001, Zito had joined Hudson and Mulder to form the Big Three of the Athletics' rotation and the Rangers had nothing close to that. Hicks ended up dismissing Melvin as general manager and one of the reasons cited was the Rangers' inability to match the Athletics in the development of pitching.

T.R. Sullivan has covered the Rangers since 1989, and for MLB.com since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger and listen to his podcast.

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