NASHVILLE -- The Boston Red Sox kicked the tires on Zack Greinke, knowing the likelihood of a fit was a longshot. But something interesting happened when general manager Ben Cherrington spoke to the free agent pitcher: Greinke started breaking down prospects deep in the Boston minor league system in such detail that Cherrington began to think Greinke was more familiar with them than the general manager himself. Greinke is the same guy who happily broke down video of amateur players for Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin to help the Brewers prepare for the draft.
Greinke is not your typical free agent. A studious, analytical type, Greinke may well wind up taking the biggest financial offer out there, but it won't be without some serious contemplation of issues that probably don't make it on the radar of most free agents.
Greinke was scheduled to meet late Tuesday night with the Dodgers and, assuming he is finished with his homework, may arrive at a decision as soon as the next 24-48 hours. His two leading choices are these: take the Dodgers, National League style baseball and the richest contract ever given to a righthanded pitcher -- and perhaps any pitcher -- or take what passes for a pitching think tank in Texas, led by professors Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux and Mike Maddux. The Angels remain in the hunt, but don't figure to be in the ballpark of the Dodgers' bidding.
Is Greinke "worth" $150 million to a record $162 million. No. He wouldn't even be the best pitcher on the Dodgers. (Good luck with that Clayton Kershaw extension.) As a financial valuation, he is an accident of timing: the only true number one pitcher on the market -- free agency or trade -- at a time when the Dodgers have eager new ownership and the promise of the most lucrative regional television package in baseball history.
But here's what Greinke is: a 29-year-old athletic pitcher with the kind of clean mechanics, body type and low-key lifestyle that suggests he will age well -- not too different than Matt Cain or Greg Maddux himself on the scale of reliability factors. Indeed, according to a source familiar with negotiations, there is a mutual admiration between Ryan and Greinke that makes Texas a real player even in the likely event they are outbid. Consider Ryan as not just the master of pitching longevity but a connoisseur of pitching mechanics and evaluation. He is taken by the low risk factor because of the way Greinke throws -- and Greinke is taken by Ryan's pitching intellect.
From 2008-12, Greinke has the fifth most strikeouts in baseball and the eighth most wins while averaging 207 innings per year. He missed a total of five starts in those seasons -- all of them because of an offseason basketball injury to his ribs. He has had no major shoulder or elbow issues and he has held his velocity fairly consistently.
The Dodgers, though, can offer Greinke more money and the chance to play the style of baseball he prefers, with the opportunity to hit and run the bases. And you can't blame Greinke if he prefers the NL also because he knows it's easier to navigate through lineups without the DH than with it. In his AL career Greinke is 66-69 with a 3.80 ERA and 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings while in the NL he is 25-9 with a 3.67 ERA and 9.9 strikeouts per nine.
Either way, Greinke's signing will cause a stir because of the amount of money paid to a guy who has been pitching for nine years and has received support in Cy Young Award voting only once. (He won it in 2009.) But it's a decision that for Greinke will involve more than just the money.
The Angels watched Dan Haren pitch all of last season and decided he wasn't worth $12 million -- the difference between his $15.5 million option and the $3.5 million they had to pay him to make it go away. The Nationals turned around and gave him $13 million, pending a physical, to be their number four starter.
Maybe these two differing viewpoints of Haren tell you something mostly about Washington: that the Nationals are all in for the World Series in 2013, which means taking risks even the Angels would not. Or maybe it tells you something mostly about the Angels: that they know Haren better than anybody else.
In any case, for Haren to pay off at those dollars for Washington he needs to rebound at age 32 from a loss of velocity, a decline in strikeouts, a love affair with the cutter that has diminished his fastball and left him prone to home runs, and the physical strain of throwing almost 600 more pitches than anybody else in baseball in the seven seasons from 2005-11. It could well happen for Haren and the Nats, especially jumping back into the more forgiving pitching environment of the NL. He is a workhorse with a strong work ethic and the kind of excellent command that allows him to make the best of 88 mph rather than 92 mph.
In short, it's a good bet for Washington to make. The Nationals officially crossed that line from "happy to be here" to "all in." It's not the time to play conservatively.
• The Red Sox, bearing scars, are so averse to the possibility of getting burned by long-term deals they essentially gave Shane Victorino four years of money over three years. Victorino, who will get $39 million from Boston, follows
• Remember John Lackey? Word from the Red Sox is he is mentally and physically "on a mission" after Tommy John surgery and even has accepted advice that part of changing the perception of him in Boston is to better accommodate the media. Boston expects him in its Opening Day rotation, though it continues to shop for another starting pitcher.
• Don't look for the Phillies to put Domonic Brown in centerfield and shop for a corner outfielder. His brief looks in centerfield in the minors did not go well enough. Philadelphia considers him a corner outfielder only. The Phillies' top priority is to find a centerfielder from outside the organization: either a full-time starter or a lefthanded bat to platoon with John Mayberry Jr.
• The Tigers are giving strong signals they will not spend big money on a closer. Rookie Bruce Rondon, 22, who throws 100 mph and began last season in A ball, will compete for the closer's job, with Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit and Phil Coke giving manager Jim Leyland some coverage so that Rondon will have to earn the job rather than be given it. Rondon has impressed the Tigers this winter by closing games in Venezuela.
• The Brewers are under the gun to turn up some relief pitching, such as Jason Grilli. Last season their bullpen lost the most games in the league (33) and threw the most innings this side of the Rockies.
• The high price of winning: The world champion Giants overpaid for thirtysomethings Marco Scutaro, Angel Pagan and Jeremy Affeldt ($78 million combined for 10 years of combined service). But they did so with smiles on their faces.