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The Bard’s Take: Arizona Payroll and Zack Greinke (2 of 2)

Yesterday we examined the reasons to retain Zack Greinke, despite his contract. Today we look at the reasons for parting ways with him.

San Francisco Giants v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

There are no two ways about it, the Arizona Diamondbacks are exceedingly hampered by ultra-cheap ownership. Whether this is because ownership is more interested in pocketing the revenue generated by the team, or this is the result of the ownership group being entirely out of its depth and unable to support a larger payroll really doesn’t matter. The bottom line is, this team has been and continues to be, asked to field a competitive product while running at a significant payroll disadvantage. For this season, the average total payroll currently sits at $138,939,583*. The same source has the Diamondbacks pegged at spending $94,722,173. Other sources have the Diamondbacks spending even less (as little as $85 million), while some have them spending as much as $96 million. Regardless of source though, the Diamondbacks are spending, not only less than the league average, but are 25th out of 30 teams in payroll. Three of the teams below them, the Reds, Brewers, and Padres are in full-on rebuilds. Another team, the Tampa Bay Rays, is in what can be graciously termed as an untenable situation with regards to revenue streams and stadium issues. That leaves only Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics as a team spending less and expecting positive results. It should also be noted that two other teams in different stages of a full rebuild, the White Sox and Braves are spending more than the Diamondbacks by a pretty fair margin ($6+ million and $17+ million respectively). With payroll set at just a fraction above 68% of the league average, the Diamondbacks find themselves needing to get maximum benefit from every last penny spent. At such low spending levels, it also means the team has to maximize the flexibility of its monetary resources. This is where a contract like Zack Greinke’s becomes problematic.

The problem with Zack Greinke’s contract is not tied nearly as much to how much he is getting paid as it is to the percentage of the Arizona payroll his contract monopolizes. By the end of his contract, there will be a decent number of players making Greinke-like money. As a premium free agent, arguably the best in his season’s market, Greinke’s contract, in itself, was not an entirely unreasonable one. The problem the Diamondbacks ran into after signing him was that Ken Kendrick then decided to go from spending competitively to once again being overly frugal. Suddenly, the massive salary flexibility to the Diamondbacks entered the offseason with was gone – completely. Unfortunately, the team still had plenty of holes to fill.

That hasn’t changed. In fact, with the trades and promotions of the top organizational prospects over the last three seasons, the team is in even deeper trouble now than it was when Zack Greinke was first brought to the team. The reason things are getting worse is that the team is entering a period in which arbitration costs are going to start expanding payroll. With the lack of prospects in the upper minors, these arbitration inflations to the payroll are mostly unavoidable, even if the team did decide it wanted to cut loose some of the players.

Rising player-costs across the league make it almost impossible for the Diamondbacks to continue running a payroll at or below $100 million. It is almost a sure thing that the team will need to concede to a payroll of around $110 million beginning in 2018, and possibly as high as $120 million by 2020 or 2021. Even at a mere $110 million for 2018 though, puts this team in a position of needing to excise approximately $7 million from the payroll just to bring back most of what it has now. This would also mean replacing the departing veterans (Blanco, Wilhelmsen, Rodney, and others) with league minimum contracts – the sort generally brought up from within the system. Sure, the team might be able to save about half that $7 million shortage by non-tendering a few players, such as Randall Delgado and Andrew Chafin, but that just feeds into the problem of the team needing more depth. Those players non-tendered then need to be replaced as well.

The only places to see “real” savings are by moving some of the larger contracts. The largest of those is obviously Zack Greinke’s. The only other players currently with the team who will have contracts large enough to offset the overage are Yasmany Tomás ($13.5 million), Paul Goldschmidt ($11.1 million), and A.J. Pollock (going through final year of arbitration with a $6.75 million contract for this season).

As was pointed out in part one of this piece, the team does not appear interested in a rebuild – at least not yet. If the team is trying to compete, Goldschmidt and Pollock aren’t going anywhere. Even if the team were to decide to trade Pollock with his one year of control left, the return would be a big one, the sort that comes with MLB salary attached to it. That means moving Pollock probably winds up being close to salary neutral, or close to it – at least for the purposes of 2018. Tomás is the subject of the next look at Arizona’s payroll, but even moving Tomás doesn’t provide the sort of salary relief the team will need once the calendar flips from 2018 to 2019. No, at such restrained levels, only one salary makes enough of a difference, that is Greinke’s.

Put simply, the Diamondbacks may need to move Zack Greinke’s contract just to afford to keep the sub-standard team it is already fielding. Of course, moving Greinke weakens the rotation, so this means the team not only needs to move Greinke, it needs to do so without eating too much salary, as there still needs to be something left over with which to address the Greinke-sized hole that the team will be facing in the rotation. Still, if the team could unload 100% of Greinke’s contract (unlikely under any circumstance) it would have about $25 million in 2018 to work with and about $12 to work with in 2019. That’s not much, but it is something.

At the very least, moving Greinke’s contract allows the team to retain the quality young players it has now. It also provides the team with enough money to continue mining the free agent market for veteran cast-offs (such as Jorge De La Rosa) and pillow contracts. Through string scouting and shrewd roster construction, these types of signings could make the Arizona Diamondbacks a surprise contender in any given season.

Unfortunately, unloading Greinke’s contract does not, by itself, give the team the financial flexibility to lock up any of their core beyond the arbitration years. If anything, this puts even greater pressure on Mike Hazen to create as much payroll flexibility as he can now, with an eye at finding the needed pieces to supplement the quality group of younger talent he currently has. Even that is unlikely to find much success though, as the talent acquired would need to upgrade what the team already has, and the market is rather thin.

Plain and simple, the Arizona Diamondbacks, despite being a mid-market team, cannot afford a player the likes of Zack Greinke to help them to reach the playoffs (at least not while Ken Kendrick holds the purse-strings). This is why, if and when Zack Greinke is moved, we can (and probably should) expect the move to be the first step of the team switching from competition mode to rebuilding mode. Freeing up Greinke’s salary could be key to making a run with talent gained in trades of Goldschmidt, Corbin, and Pollock, making it an outside possibility the team could compete by 2021.