Zack Greinke's choice is reportedly down to two teams: the Dodgers and Giants. But which of the NL West rivals is the better match for free agency's top remaining starter?
With star pitchers David Price and Jordan Zimmermann having already found their new teams, all eyes are now on Zack Greinke. According to the latest rumors, Greinke, the NL Cy Young runner-up this season after posting a 1.66 ERA for the Dodgers, has narrowed his search to his most recent club and their National League West rivals in San Francisco. He is expected to reach a decision this week on a deal that could break the MLB record for highest average annual value that Price just tied with his seven-year, $217 million pact with Boston.
According to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, the Red Sox were negotiating with Price and Greinke simultaneously, and it was Greinke’s request for a decision from Boston by Tuesday night that led the team to coming to terms with Price. With the Red Sox no longer in play, Nightengale and others are now reporting that Greinke is expected to sign a contract with the Giants or Dodgers in the neighborhood of either $160 million over five years or $192 million over six years. Both of those deals work out to $32 million per season, besting the record $31 million average annual value of Price’s new contract, which tied Miguel Cabrera’s 2014 extension with the Tigers for the highest AAV in baseball history—something that is indeed Greinke’s goal, per ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick.
Those figures aren’t completely out of line with the projections from our What’s He Really Worth formula. Using an unadjusted 5/4/3 weighting of his last three seasons to project his 2016 Wins Above Replacement, we got 6.3 bWAR for the coming season. With a decline of 0.8 bWAR for each subsequent season and a 5.4% increase in the cost of a marginal win each year, our system told us that Greinke will be worth $176 million over the next five years and $196.6 million over the next six.
That 6.3 bWAR looked high to me, however, as a figure too heavily influenced by his overpowering but clearly fluky 2015 performance, which included the fourth-lowest ERA since the mound was lowered after the 1968 Year of the Pitcher. Tracing his steady pre-2015 improvement forward, I overruled the system and projected a more realistic 5.2 bWAR for Greinke’s '16, which drops his projected value to $134 million over the next five years and $144.9 million over the next six. Roughly one win of WAR in year one makes a big difference in his projected value; we’re talking about a pitcher who will be 32 in the first season of his new contract, one which will take him to or beyond his age-36 season. At that age, as previously detailed, few of even the best starting pitchers of the last 15 years have managed to remain above replacement level.
From a financial perspective, then, a Greinke deal averaging $32 million per year would be a better investment for the Dodgers, who have the extra money to burn. Greinke's next contract is likely to play out just like the five-year deal the Phillies gave Cliff Lee in November 2010, prior to his age-32 season. Lee pitched at his expected level for three years (2011 to '13), got hurt in year four (2014) and missed all of year five (2015); Philadelphia still owed him $25 million for this past season plus $12.5 million to buy out his 2016 option. Greinke’s decline may not be as dramatic and complete, but there’s little reason to expect him to be even an average starting pitcher in 2020, his age-36 season, which would be the fifth year of a deal signed this off-season.
Los Angeles can eat that money on the back end, but San Francisco—despite its recent run of world championships and the potential for more in the early years of a Greinke deal—would be more limited by what could be tens of millions of wasted dollars. Simple spending power would thus seem to make the Dodgers the favorite to land Greinke, as they would seem to be more willing to add on a sixth year that would cover Greinke’s age-37 season and is likely to be a sunk cost.
L.A. also offers Greinke familiarity and continuity. According to a recent tweet from Molly Knight, author of The Best Team Money Can Buy, which is about the recent Dodgers teams, “Greinke has great friends on the team and in the org[anization] and is well-liked. He loves [pitching coach] Rick Honeycutt. He has young family and owns a home here.” Greinke has also been very involved in the organization, joining front office personnel in their decision room on draft day in each of the last two years.
From Greinke’s perspective, however, the greater concern may be which team can get him to the World Series in the next few years. The Giants have been there and won it three times in the last six years and are well positioned to make another run in 2016, assuming they can keep outfielder Hunter Pence healthy; they should also enjoy the continued maturation of their homegrown infield. The Dodgers, meanwhile, have made the playoffs the last three years with Greinke in their rotation but have not made it to the World Series since 1988. Los Angeles is inarguably a talented team and one that will continue to spend as necessary to keep those playoff berths coming, but the Dodgers are also in something of a transition this off-season.
Beyond the change of managers from Don Mattingly to former Padres bench coach Dave Roberts, L.A. isn't sure what to expect in the coming season from outfielder Yasiel Puig or starting pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu, both of whom were limited by injuries in 2015 (Ryu missed the entire season after shoulder surgery). The team also has an awkward combination of aging players (first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and outfielders Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier are each entering their age-34 season) and youngsters still looking to establish themselves (infielder Corey Seager, centerfielder Joc Pederson—who had a brutal second half in his rookie season—and perhaps second baseman Jose Peraza and lefty starter Julio Urias).
Both clubs obviously have the bulk of the off-season ahead to make improvements, but as things stand now, if Greinke were to return to the Dodgers, he’d simply be maintaining the status quo. If he signs with San Francisco, however, he could tip the division in the Giants' favor and possibly even make them an early World Series favorite.
This past season, San Francisco had the best team defense in the NL, per park adjusted defensive efficiency, and it outscored the Dodgers by 29 runs on the season while boasting a significantly better bullpen (3.33 relief ERA to Los Angeles’ 3.91). Don’t discount how attractive pitching in a more pitcher-friendly ballpark in front of a superior defense and superior bullpen might be to Greinke. If he elects to join Madison Bumgarner at the front of the Giants' rotation with Jake Peavy, Chris Heston and Matt Cain as the likely back three, it would be easy to tab them as the best team in the NL West.
With Price, Greinke and Zimmermann off the market, the Dodgers’ only comparable counter move would be to meet Johnny Cueto’s asking price, which is reportedly near $150 million. That figure is more than 60% higher than what our projections believe he is worth—projections that should not be adjusted upward given Cueto’s body type (short, heavy) and history of shoulder issues. Cueto is an excellent pitcher and would likely keep L.A. competitive in the near term, but Greinke, despite being two years older, is the better investment at that price point because of his consistency and health.
Because of that, don't expect the Giants to spend big on Cueto if they fail to land Greinke. Instead, look for them to move on to the next tier of free-agent starters, one that includes Wei-Yin Chen, Jeff Samardzija and 2015 deadline acquisition Mike Leake. One reason for that is money; the other is that San Francisco, having the better overall team, doesn’t need as big a score in its rotation as Los Angeles does.
Whatever Greinke’s decision, the Dodgers-Giants rivalry seems likely to generate another compelling season as the two teams continue to battle for NL West dominance. If Greinke leaves Los Angeles for San Francisco, however, that battle will not only have even more juice than before but could also find the Giants back on top of the division for the first time since 2012.