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Making Sense of the Zack Greinke Contract


Before the annual MLB Winter Meetings even started at full force, we have seen how most of the prominent free-agent pitchers have been snatched off the open market. David Price signed a monster deal in Boston, Jordan Zimmermann was presented in Detroit, Jeff Samardzija will become San Francisco's latest reclamation project, and even John Lackey made headlines by signing with the Cubs. And yet, the biggest contract of them all was a bit of a head-scratcher, as it involved arguably the most prominent free agent ace signing with a fringe franchise. Yes, Zack Greinke is going to take his talents to Arizona.

Of course, Greinke was only a free agent due to his opt-out clause after only 3 seasons with the Dodgers. Following 3 straight top-10 Cy Young finishes and fresh off a league-leading 1.66 ERA in 2015, Greinke opting out was a foregone conclusion as he was bound to make even more money despite already being 32 years old. Early offseason reports linked Greinke to seemingly all big-market teams, with usual suspects like the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, and Giants being in the running for his services.

A few weeks passed by and all reports suggested that Greinke's decision would be a final duel between the Dodgers and Giants, who tried to lure the righty with promises of contention and buckets of money that would secure the futures of many generations of his lineage. And yet, even as the Dodgers were always seen as the most logical landing spot for Greinke, he ended up being the first big casualty of the way the team conducts business following the change in GM after 2014.

After the Dodgers balked on offering Greinke a sixth guaranteed year, a different NFC West rival swooped in to shock the baseball world. With a six-year, $206 million contract, the Diamondbacks signed the former Royal to the largest contract in baseball history in terms of annual salary, believing that he will age well and provide the surging franchise with the boost it needs to become a contender. And yet, the question remains: why Arizona?

When the deal was first announced, the first that came into my mind was the deal Jayson Werth signed with the Nationals before the 2011 season. At the time, the 7-year, $126 million contract was seen as a huge overpay from a franchise that wasn’t really known for being a huge spender, or for being on the verge of a breakout. And yet, we can look at the parallelisms between these two free-agent signings, and see how they are eerily similar.

Nationals

2009

2010

2011

Payroll Rank

27th

23rd

22nd

Record

59-103

69-93

80-81

Finish

Last

Last

Third

Dbacks

2013

2014

2015

Payroll Rank

17th

11th

24th

Record

81-81

64-98

79-83

Finish

Second

Last

Third

As we can see, the Diamondbacks are similarly positioned in the fact that they have carried a low-tier payroll for a while now, and so have the money to spend, while their recent performance suggests that they are in place to fancy themselves as a potential playoff team. So while the Dbacks may be a year ahead of schedule when compared to how the Nationals turned the franchise around, the immediate impact of what a player like Greinke can bring should be immediately felt.

By 2012, the Nationals added Bryce Harper on their way to winning the division for the first time, which is certainly what Arizona will be gunning for in 2016. Before the Greinke signing, they had seriously flirted with free agent Johnny Cueto, who reportedly turned down a 6-year, $120 million deal from Arizona. This is why Arizona was a mystery team as the offseason began, but having to spend nearly double for Greinke still came as a shock.

By grabbing the former Cy Young winner, the Diamondbacks are getting a bona fide ace to what already was a top-heavy roster. In 2015, Arizona had two batters make the top 10 in terms of WAR, with Paul Goldschmidt continuing his peak and AJ Pollock emerging as one of the best all-around players in the game. However, when we look at the pitching we have to go all the way down to number 72 to find Arizona's most valuable pitcher, as Robbie Ray led the team with 2.1 WAR among pitchers.

By the same measure, Greinke was the 7th-most valuable pitcher in the league. Even as his league-low ERA was probably fueled by an unsustainable strand rate and a career-best walk ratio, Greinke has proven his longevity and preparation are nearly unmatched. After becoming a full-time starter in 2008, he has made at least 28 starts every year since, with no serious DL stints, and always posting results well above league average. He won a Cy Young in the American League and has similarly dominated in the National League, winning 51 games in 3 seasons in Los Angeles.

As it happens with every big free agent contract, the Diamodbcks must certainly hope that Greinke can retain this level of production for at least three or four years, even as his contract becomes untradeable by the end. Pitchers are always a tougher breed to project, but Greinke's work ethic and professionalism suggest that he is a relatively safe bet to justify such a big contract for the most part.

Steamer is already calling for some natural regression in 2016, but it's important to consider that projections tend to be conservative and rely too much on peripherals. For his part, he has been mostly good pitching in Arizona's Chase Field, with a 6-2 record and 3.34 ERA over 10 starts in his career. His transition to the NL has also proven that he is a gifted hitter for a pitcher, while advanced fielding metrics also love his glove. In that, the Diamondbacks must be really happy for getting a hurler that brings so much to the table.

Arizona's depth chart now has Greinke as the clear ace to lead the rotation, with Patrick Corbin as a quality #2 and youngsters like Rubby de la Rosa, Robbie Ray, Chase Anderson, and Archie Bradley behind them. After making such a big splash, it wouldn't be surprising to see Arizona going for more pitching help, and possibly trying to fill the roster with a few upside players that can round out what they currently have.

In the end, Greinke got the most money and Arizona won the first battle against their NL West foes, but the real battle will come in a 2016 season that should be riveting by the desert. The West now has three teams with playoff potential and big aspirations, which should be a welcome addition after many years of only the Dodgers and Giants taking all the credit. The biggest contract in Arizona history sent shockwaves in the baseball world, but it does make a lot of sense when everything is considered. 



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