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The Bard’s Take: Greinke Versus the Field - Part 2

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Was sigining Zack Greinke the right call? What if the team had chosen multiple lesser talents in order to spread the salary?

Atlanta Braves v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

In part one we examined the position the diamondbacks were in to begin the 2015-16 free agent signing season. Examining the roster and the options available to the team, it was abundantly apparent that the team’s biggest need for improvement was in the area of starting pitching. As luck would have it, last winter had a particularly strong contingent of starting pitchers. This group was headlined by David Price and Zack Greinke, who were joined by Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, Scott Kazmir, and others. Without a doubt, there was quality pitching to be had, and had in spades. A careful observer, looking forward to the 2016-17 free agent season would notice that outside of possibly Stephen Strasburg (since extended by the Washington Nationals), the cupboard is entirely bereft of impact starting pitchers. This meant that whether the target window for producing a playoff team was the 2016 or 2017 season, any sort of significant pitching improvement was going to have to come from the winter of 2016.

The evaluation of the team in part one identified a pair of goals to address with the offseason; improve the starting pitching, and attempt to add a minimum of 6 WAR to the 25-man roster. Given that vintage Randy Johnson was not available and Clayton Kershaw is already tightly wrapped up in Los Angeles, the chances of doing both with one player were slim to none. This was not really an issue though, as another apparent area of need was adding some quality depth to the rotation, eliminating some of the back-end question marks creeping into the middle of the order. That meant picking up a pair of players capable of posting a total of 6 WAR. At first glance, it would seem that finding a pair of 3 WAR pitchers in such a strong pitching market would not be terribly hard. Closer examination though, reveals that the market was well split between elite performers and serviceable starters with very little in between. With the front office’s dogged insistence on a $100 million payroll (whether that was a realistic competitive figure or not is a subject for later), picking up two elite arms was out of the question. However, picking up one elite arm was very possible. Furthermore, one glaring need the Diamondbacks had as far as being a playoff team went was the lack of a true top -of-the-rotation arm to anchor the staff, someone to face off against the likes of Kershaw, Scherzer, Fernandez and Arietta.

Still, in fairness, it behooved the team to look at the possibility of some mixing and matching. In the end, the Diamondbacks settled on Zack Greinke for 6 years/$206.5 million and an aggressive trade for arguably the best non-ace available on the trade market in Shelby Miller. Obviously, that did not work out for the Diamondbacks in 2016. Does that mean it was the wrong call though?

Below is a list of all the starting pitchers signed in the 2016-17 offseason.

Brett Anderson (28) Dodgers 1 yr/$15,800,000

**Wei-Yin Chen (31) Marlins 5 yr/$80,000,000

Bartolo Colon (43) Mets 1 yr/$7,250,000

Johnny Cueto (30) Giants 6 yr/$130,000,000

Ross Detwiler (30) Indians Minor League Deal

Marco Estrada (33) Blue Jays 2 yr/$26,000,000

Doug Fister (32) Astros 1 yr/$7,000,000

Yovani Gallardo (30) Orioles 2 yr/$22,000,000

**Zack Greinke (32) Diamondbacks 6 yr/$206,500,000

Jeremy Guthrie (37) Rangers Minor League Deal

J.A. Happ (33) Blue Jays 3 yr/$36,000,000

Rich Hill (36) Athletics 1 yr/$6,000,000

**Hisashi Iwakuma (35) Mariners 1 yr/$12,000,000

Edwin Jackson (32) Marlins 1 yr/ --

Scott Kazmir (32) Dodgers 3 yr/$48,000,000

Kyle Kendrick (32) Braves Minor League Deal

**Ian Kennedy (31) Royals 5 yr /$70,000,000

**John Lackey (37) Cubs 2 yr/$32,000,000

Mat Latos (28) White Sox 1 yr/$3,000,000

Mike Leake (28) Cardinals 5 yr/$80,000,000

Colby Lewis (37) Rangers 1 yr/$6,000,000

Kenta Maeda (28) Dodgers 8 yr/ $25,000,000 + posting and bonuses

Bud Norris (31) Braves 1 yr/$2,500,000

Mike Pelfrey (32) Tigers 2 yr/$16,000,000

David Price (31) Red Sox 7 yr/$217,000,000

**Jeff Samardzija (31) Giants 5 yr/$90,000,000

Yaisel Sierra (25) Dodgers 6 yr/$30,000,000

Alfredo Simon (35) Reds 1 yr/--

**Jordan Zimmermann (30) Tigers 5 yr/$110,000,000

**indicates pitcher had a qualifying offer requiring forfeiture of a draft pick in order to sign

A few things about the list stand out. First, the top of the list included David Price, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, and Jordan Zimmermann. Zimmermann signed so fast that if teams blinked, they probably missed their chance to negotiate. Johnny Cueto was given a modest offer by the Diamondbacks, but he made it fairly clear that he had no desire to come play for the Diamondbacks. Whether it was the money, the Diamondbacks’ situation, or history with Tony La Russa (or some combination of all three), it was apparent early on that the only way the Diamondbacks had a shot at Johnny Cueto was to offer him David Price-type money.

Of the remaining pitchers, any with more than one season of 3 or more WAR came with a qualifying offer. The two exceptions to this were Bartolo Colon and Colby Lewis, neither of which was ever truly available for prying away from their 2015 team. Given the addition of age and injury concerns, neither made a very appealing target for the young Arizona club looking to put together a team for the next three to four years.

The other thing that stands out is just how much pitching has come to cost on the open market. Pitchers such as Lackey, Kazmir, Chen, Samardzija, and Leake, who were considered to only have a slight chance at averaging above 3 WAR over multiple seasons were all getting an average annual value of $16 million, and this despite serious age, injury, and/or performance concerns surrounding all of them. Of those players, only Mike Leake had age on his side. As it happens, he was willing to take a steep discount to pitch for Arizona. Even then though, Leake was looked at as more of a 2 WAR pitcher that might possibly provide 3 WAR in an isolated strong season. That put Leake’s cost at $8 million/WAR when he signed with St. Louis. Such is the cost of pitching in today’s market. This is a point to keep in mind as we continue this evaluation.

Compared to the rest of the pitching talent available, Zack Greinke suddenly looks far more appealing. Unlike the vast majority of the second-tier pitchers, Greinke was viewed as a pitcher that was a safe bet for 3 WAR per season and more likely a 4 WAR pitcher. 24 WAR over six seasons on his contract drops his cost per WAAR down to $8.6 million/WAR. Given that average pitchers are getting $8 million/WAR with a shorter track record of success, far lower upside, and a greater number of question marks, the Diamondbacks wound up with some fairly decent insurance without committing to the expected sort of overpay that most teams in the Diamondbacks’ situation would have been expected to pay.

Still, the cost was a steep one. Could the Diamondbacks have spread the money out over two pitchers and obtained the same level of production? With a baseline of 4 WAR annually being considered the break-even point, the numbers would suggest that the Diamondbacks would have needed to sign not two, but actually three pitchers from that list in order to make that level of performance. Even signing two of the pitchers, say Leake at a discount and Samardzija as youth with upside, the team would still have been committed to over $30 million for what was a 5-6 WAR upside and a 2 WAR floor. Greinke came with a 6+ WAR upside and a safe floor of 3 WAR, and expected performance of 4 WAR.

This is what was known at the time of the signing. Hindsight today tells us that No combination of two players honestly available to the Diamondbacks would combine to match Greinke’s performance expectation. That may bring little comfort, but it shows just how risky the market was.

What of the position player market though? Could the Diamondbacks have improved the pitching and position player alignements by a total of 6 WAR while focusing first on pitching? The short answer is maybe. It would have relied on the Diamondbacks knowing certain developments ahead of time though, ones they could not possibly have been expected to know were going to come about. The only real position player talent that would have fit the bill is Dexter Fowler. Adding Fowler would have been problematic early in the offseason though. First, it would have required knowing that Pollock would be out, and that Inciarte would be traded. Second, it would have required knowing that Fowler would find himself in the position of needing to settle for a pillow contract late into spring. Without knowing these things, signing Fowler, as intriguing as it would have been, simply did not make sense. Fowler was tied to a qualifying offer. He was not viewed as likely to markedly outpace Inciarte or Peralta in terms of outfield production. Further, while Fowler would be a clear upgrade on Yasmany Tomás, Tomás was not going anywhere after the sort of 2015 he had just endured and the contract he was saddled with.

The Take:

Zack Greinke signed a very lucrative contract, the sort that most teams blush at giving out. However, the risk of bust versus the potential ceiling far and away surpassed the expected (and in the longer run produced) results of any two other candidates from the starting pitching corps. Simply put, Greinke only needs to put together an average of 4 WAR per season over the life of his contract in order to earn his contract. Having already surpassed that number nine times in his career, and not yet deep into the aging curve, Greinke still seems like a safe bet to at least earn his salary. Paying $8.6 million per WAR can hardly even be considered an overpay at all in today’s market, much less for a player on the high side of the WAR-earning scale.

The free agent market for 2017-18 is very light on talent. Further, it is entirely devoid of any sort of impact pitching. The only place the Diamondbacks were going to get a top-of-the-rotation pitcher between the end of 2015 and the end of 2017 was the 2015-16 free agent market. The only comparable talent available via trade was Cole Hamels, and the Rangers locked that trade up long before the Diamondbacks were ever even looking to upgrade.

Although Dexter Fowler was available, no other position impact players were available that would have helped the team to save any money by combining with a second tier pitcher while also helping to push the team beyond an additional 6 WAR. Keep in mind, in order for Fowler to contribute at all, the team first would have to part with 3+ WAR in Inciarte or Peralta. This would largely offset any contributions from Fowler. Meanwhile, the second-tier pitchers were all considered a very big risk to be considered reliable 3 WAR pitchers. So far, those reservations have largely proven to be well-founded.

Lastly, it has been argued, and with good reason, that it is very difficult to build a team when a full third of the salary of a 25-man roster is wrapped up in one player. It is difficult to disagree with this, however, it is equally questionable that the target of a $100 million payroll was ever sufficient to field a playoff caliber team that could rely more heavily on talent than on luck. Regardless of whether that figure was a reasonable one or not, it remains very unlikely that the Diamondbacks could have found Zack Greinke’s expected level of production from any two or three available players in the 2015-16 offseason. This becomes even less likely in situations where a valuable position player would need to move in order to make room for the acquisition.

Is there a risk that Zack Greinke will not make it to 24 WAR by the end of his six-year contract? Of course there is. This season is a perfect demonstration. A slow start, a struggling team around him, and a moderate-length stint on the DL has Greinke on pace for only 3 WAR in 2016. Given his very long history of success and his profile as a smart command pitcher, he still looks like a safer bet to rebound and recover that one lost win over the next five seasons than any of the other candidates, many of who are struggling to reach even the 2 WAR level needed just to reach their necessary floor to be paired with a second such pitcher to replace what Greinke looks capable of doing on his own.

If this team is going to make a playoff run in the next few years, it is going to need a top-of-the-rotation pitcher to help lead the way. Under the circumstances that existed at the time of the signing, Zack Greinke was easily the smart move. His floor outperforms the expected ceilings of any two other pitchers and there are no other pitchers of his caliber coming available until 2019, save possibly Johnny Cueto via an opt-out from his deal with the Giants.