- Date signed: December 2015
- Length: six years (2016-2021)
- Cost at time: $206.5 million
- Adjusted 2022 cost: $237.15 million
- Production: 20.0 bWAR
- Negative value: $77.15 million
How the player got there
“You’re not allowed to write about me if you haven’t seen The Shawshank Redemption. See it, and then get back to me.”
— Zack Greinke
I am pleased to report I have seen The Shawshank Redemption. It was quite good. Not one of my favorites, and it was pretty much one and done, but a solid enough movie. So, anyway: where were you when you heard the news? It pretty much was the poster child for “came out of nowhere”, going from:
Sources: Greinke in agreement with #DBacks, pending physical.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 5, 2015
in one hour and forty-one minutes. Which is 41 minutes less than the running time of The Shawshank Redemption. It was a stunning development, everyone believing it was between the Dodgers and the Giants for Greinke’s services. It was more than three times the biggest contract the team had given out to that point (no prizes for guessing, you’ll hear more about the previous record holder, later in this series). It was also more per season than the entirety of Goldy’s five-year contract extension. But if anyone was worth it, Greinke at that point probably was. He was coming off a season in Los Angeles where he went 19-3, with a 1.66 ERA, and should have won the Cy Young (he came second to Jake Arrieta’s 22 wins).
Greinke had been very good for a very long time. Over the previous seven seasons, he had averaged 5.2 bWAR, a figure exceeded only by then team-mate Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez. He’d averaged better than 31 starts per seasons, and had struck out better than four batters for every one he walked. He was certainly the best pitcher available on the free-agent market that winter, but nobody saw him coming to the Diamondbacks. It was clearly intended as a statement by GM Dave Stewart, that Arizona intended to compete with the big boys in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Offering Greinke a sixth year was likely the key factor in him coming to the desert, but the average amount was also higher. The Dodgers’ pitch was apparently for five years at around $31 million per year, and it seems likely the Giants were in the same ballpark. Arizona had been linked to some slightly lower-tier arms that winter, including Johnnie Cueto and Kenta Maeda. However, their presence in the Greinke bidding was unexpected, and as noted above, stunning in the way it went from “pursuit” to “pending a physical.” The Dodgers pivoted to Maeda, though he proved nothing special, 5.4 bWAR across four years in LA. The Giants got Cueto (6/130), who gave them one good year and five mediocre ones.
What went wrong
I could play for the worst team if they paid the most... If the last-place team offers $200 million and the first-place team offers $10, I’m going to go for the $200-million no matter what team it was.
— Zack Greinke
This is a unique situation in these contracts, because it’s the only case where the player concerned actually played well. All the other eleven case we have discussed or will be discussing, total up to just 4.8 bWAR combined, less than a quarter of the 20 wins Greinke was worth over the total length of the contract. It wasn’t that he was bad. Just that he wasn’t good enough to justify a monstrous average annual value of $34.4 million per year. At the time, it was the biggest per year in baseball history, and even now, seven years later, it’s still ranked eighth all time. It was fifth until the winter meetings just past, when there were three larger deals signed, for Justin Verlander, Aaron Judge and Jacob DeGrom.
So there’s a reason he appears here and also in the top ten D-backs of all-time, written just before the 2018 season. The two are not mutually exclusive, and there’s no denying Zack was good, particularly before he was traded to Houston. I wrote: “This is by no means a risk-free investment. Come 2021, we may regret it - though flags fly forever, amIrite? Even now, it is putting a lot of our eggs in one basket: Depends on the break-down, but right now, Greinke represents something about 40% of the Diamondbacks payroll for 2015. That is, it must be said, due in significant part to the youth of the team... it’s still startling to realize that Greinke may well earn more than every other pitcher on the team put together.”
The problem was, there were no flags to fly. Greinke was shaky in his first season, with only a 102 ERA, and the Diamondbacks were ten games worse than the previous year. It all seemed to turn around in 2017, as the D-backs surged to 93 wins and a wild-card spot, Zack going 17-7 with a 3.20 ERA and fourth in Cy Young voting. But the post-season was a disaster for Greinke, allowing seven earned runs over 8.2 innings, with more walks (6) than strikeouts (5). The D-backs barely scraped above .500 the following year. Mike Hazen began to look at ways to get out from under the remaining three years of the contract signed by his predecessor, with Greinke now making five times any other D-backs’ salary.
In March 2019, Derrick Hall still said, “In no way can we look back with any regret... He’s deserved every dollar. He’s been the pitcher we hoped he’d be when we signed him. It’s not his fault we haven’t gone as far as we hoped... We obviously knew that when we signed him, it was something we’d be faced with way down the road. We hoped to cash in much sooner, but we believe that in order to win, you need a guy at the top of the rotation. So we did not have an appetite to move Zack.” With over $100m due at that point, it seemed a problem, but Hazen worked some magic and moved him to the Astros, paying “only” $26m for the remainder of the contract and getting some apparently promising pieces in return.
Zack made it to the post-season all three years he was with Houston, though the overall numbers after the deal were less than stellar: 3.5 bWAR and a 3.89 ERA, only a 113 ERA+. Josh Rojas alone has been worth as much since coming to Arizona, even if Seth Beer and J.B. Bukauskas have not made the impact hoped at the time of the trade, and Corbin Martin will probably end up moving to the bullpen. In the end, the signing of Greinke did not move the needle anything like as much as the Diamondbacks had hoped, with a single play-off victory over its six-year duration.
Biggest lesson to be learned
Baseball, in my opinion, would be a lot better if you could just make the same salary as everybody else in the world, and you don’t deal with any of the other stuff. But that’s not how it is.
— Zack Greinke
Spending over $200 million on one player, almost never ends up going well for anyone except the player. We’re probably still sending Greinke checks.