Two winters ago, the Arizona Diamondbacks pulled off quite a coup, stealing ace pitcher Zack Greinke away from division rivals Los Angeles and San Francisco. It was not an inexpensive feat by any measure. However, when the dust settled, the team was still committed to just under $100 million in payroll. Given the aggressive way in which they went out and signed Greinke, it seemed just a matter of time before the team added to the hype by signing another impact player. Alas, although the team did sign Tyler Clippard as well, this only happened after the team had managed to find a way to shed payroll. Despite committing to 6 yr/$206.5 million to Greinke at the opening of the offseason, the ownership brain trust decided to continue keeping payroll limited to approximately $100 million, more than $20 million below the league average.
This restriction led to further moves (and non-moves) that have had a serious impact on the development of the team. Jean Segura was brought over in a mutual salary exchange/dump with Milwaukee. Shelby Miller was acquired for a king’s ransom. No other impact free agents were signed in the last two offseasons (save Clippard who was later in the season dumped for pennies on the dollar). Thus, it has been very fair to ask whether or not the Diamondbacks should have signed Greinke in the first place. Or, since they did, whether or not the team should start looking into ways to eat salary and dump him as soon as possible. It has not helped matters any that Greinke got off to a rough start in 2016 and then finished the year by limping across the finish line, pitching at something resembling about 60% health.
Today, we will be examining why the team might just be better off not unloading Greinke - at least not yet.
When Greinke was brought on board, he needed to put up about 24 WAR over the course of his six-year deal in order for the team to break even on the contract. Barring some sort of magnificent season that defies both the odds and Father Time, that isn’t going to happen, not after getting off to such a poor start in 2016. It was in 2016-2018 that the team was looking to Greinke to establish some excess value, probably logging around 15 war or so, allowing him to fade gracefully over the back half of the contract. The final years were always expected to be overpays, but that didn’t mean the contract as a whole would be. As it stands now though, even if Greinke keeps up the strong pace he has posted so far in 2017, he will just barely get his accumulated WAR back over the eight across two seasons needed just to keep pace with the average that was expected. Since no one is expecting Greinke to put up 4+ WAR seasons in the final two years of the contract, his age 37 and 38 seasons, it is still a safe bet he falls short.
This, along with unrealistic expectations for the total team payroll would seem to indicate the best course of action would be to unload Greinke now, while he is performing nicely and still has at least an outside chance at making 24 WAR over six seasons. Sure, it would take eating some salary, but then the team would have financial flexibility with which to address its various needs.
If only it were that easy.
The fact that Paul Goldschmidt, A.J. Pollock, Archie Bradley, and Patrick Corbin are all still with the Diamondbacks makes it very clear that this front office is not going in for a full-on rebuild. The team’s early success this seasons also pushing back the likelihood of a rebuild starting at the trade deadline. IF the team is not going to rebuild, but is instead going to hold on to the likes of Goldschmidt and Pollock, then the team needs to hurry up and win before 2019 rolls around and Pollock hits free agency, along with Patrick Corbin. That essentially puts the team in a “win now” situation. That does not necessarily rule out also building for the future. In fact, it shouldn’t rule out building for the future. It does, however, put a premium on winning games in the present. As the Diamondbacks have been showing this season, starting pitching is key to that goal. If the team were to trade Greinke, who replaces him in the rotation – especially now that Shelby Miller has been sidelined for the remainder of the season? Any replacement is going to need to be an MLB starter capable of 200 innings and 3 WAR. There aren’t too many of those around. Even if Bradley replaces Greinke and Banda replaces Miller, that leaves the team with zero options for depth in the rotation should another starter be needed for any reason.
Sure, but the Diamondbacks can use that saved money to make a run at a quality free agent or three in the2017-18 offseason.
Assuming the team is still trying to win games, let us look at that. The best starting pitchers on the next free agent market are Johnny Cueto and Masahiro Tanaka (if they opt out of their deals, as it is assumed they will). They will be wanting contracts in the five to seven-year range and probably be looking at $25+ million per season over that time. Given his age, if Tanaka repeats his 2016 success this season, he could potentially see closer to $30 million AAV. After that, the next best pitchers are Chris Tillman and Jeremy Hellickson. Assuming Tillman is able to return to form (having only now returned to the rotation), both of those pitchers are going to sign deals in the three to five-year range at an AAV in the ballpark $20 million per season. That’s $20 million (or more) per season for right-handed starters that are probably #4/5 guys on most contending teams. The pitching talent falls off precipitously after that. If the team parts with Greinke though, they will need to go out and acquire pitching. Even if the team doesn’t part with Greinke, it could be argued the team will have few options but to go out and at least try to buy some more low-cost depth.
The team also needs to invest in catching help. Unfortunately, the upcoming free agent class does not appear to be in a position to help much, at any price. Where then are the Diamondbacks going to invest the Greinke money? It is possible the team could invest the remaining $8-10 million left from signing Hellickson or Tillman into the bullpen. However, as we have seen all over baseball already this season, bullpens, even great ones, are extremely volatile. Investing in the sorts of pitchers that stabilize bullpens (Craig Kimbrel, Wade Davis, Andrew Bailey), requires a great deal more than what the Diamondbacks will still have available.
Zack Greinke, on his own, even if going through the expected typical decline, is a pretty safe bet to bring as much to the team as any combination of players the team is able to sign next offseason. Now, there is the possibility of using the funds to trade for a big contract, but those are difficult to come by when they are actually working out. Those generally only become available when the player is grossly under-performing. If the team is going to ride its pitching into a playoff berth, it is difficult to see the Diamondbacks finding Greinke’s production anywhere else, especially for less money.
But what about 2019-2022? He’ll still have three years left during which he will likely be in hard decline?
The 2018-19 offseason is probably already giving Ken Kendrick nightmares. The Diamondbacks have Pollock and Corbin expected to hit free agency, thinning the team’s depth. On top of that, the 2018-19 offseason is going to be one for the record books. It features not one, but two players (Bryce Harper and Manny Machado) who have very legitimate chances of landing $400 million contracts. In addition, it features a third player (Clayton Kershaw) who has a very real chance of securing a $40 million season. Other “lesser” names on the market will be; Brian Dozier, Adam Jones, Josh Donaldson, Matt Harvey, Dallas Keuchel, Jeurys Familia, and a host of others looking to cash in on a second veteran contract. The qualifying offer is expected to be pushing up just below $20 million per season. This is the free agent market that is going to redefine the expectations of contracts. There is a ton of talent in that market. It would be nice to have Greinke’s money to spend in that market. Who do they target though, especially since anyone they target will be wanting a minimum of three seasons, and those with bigger expected impacts will want five or more. Putting it another way, assuming baseball develops mostly as expected, Dallas Keuchel, not even the best name on the market, will probably be looking at what Zack Greinke is currently signed for, possibly more if he wins another Cy Young Award.
In other words, Greinke’s contract, as big as it is, will no longer be nearly the overpay outlier it currently stands at. That puts a great deal more pressure on the team to be able to spend those same dollars and still increase production, and not just marginally. It will take close to $24 million AAV just to replace Pollock if the team allows him to depart. With Pollock and Corbin leaving, the team could invest Greinke’s salary in trying to retain them, but then the team still has no money left, and is still looking for another starting pitcher (to replace Greinke).
Maybe the team has success in that market. It’s difficult to see it happening though, at least as long as Ken Kendrick is still holding the purse strings. That means the team needs to win between now and the 2018 season. Unloading Greinke’s contract creates financial flexibility in that window, but it does not create players worth spending that money on. Having talent but little financial wiggle room to make adjustments is a tough. But at least the team has talent. The alternative would be to have money on hand, but no talent to spend it on.
At this point, it seems like a very strong case can be made to hold on to Zack Greinke until at least the 2018 trade deadline, hoping that he can maintain something close to the performance he is displaying now. If he can put up 4 WAR again in 2017 and is at 2 WAR or more by the 2018 deadline, he should be pretty easy to move, even without eating money, as he will be on “only” a three-year commitment at that point. That’s putting an awful lot of faith in things going right for the Diamondbacks. The alternative would seem to be eating too much salary now to make the cost of unloading him very useful, all while also punting on any reasonable chance at competing between now and the end of 2018.