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Diamondbacks spend big to land ace Zack Greinke, shaking up NL West

Zack Greinke shocked the baseball world on Friday by choosing the Diamondbacks, and his decision shakes up next year’s NL West race.

Zack Greinke will not return to the Dodgers next year and, as expected, his departure has tipped the balance of power in the National League West. Not, however, to the Giants, as expected, but to the Arizona Diamondbacks, who landed the 2015 NL Cy Young runner-up via a six-year, $206 million deal that sets a record for the highest average annual value in major league history at $34.3 million per year.

The Diamondbacks clearly overpaid the 32-year-old Greinke in isolation, but given that all reports had Greinke staying in the division, some of that overpay may prove to be worth it for the blow struck against the Dodgers and Giants. The Diamondbacks finished third in the NL West behind those two teams in 2015, but as I wrote in September, their outlook for the coming season was encouraging even before they signed Greinke.

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The Diamondbacks were second in the NL in runs scored this past season, behind only the altitude-assisted Rockies, and the oldest of their projected regulars for 2016 is catcher Welington Castillo, who turns 29 in April. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt is one of the best players in the game. Centerfielder A.J. Pollock emerged as a star in 2015 and has averaged 6.5 wins above replacement ( version) per 162 games over the last three seasons, and prospects Brandon Drury and Peter O’Brien offer depth in the infield and outfield heading into next season.

The Diamondbacks’ big weakness this past season was their rotation, but Patrick Corbin made a strong return from Tommy John surgery in the second half of the season, Robbie Ray emerged as a viable mid-rotation starter and top prospect Archie Bradley ended the season on an upswing in Triple-A after an injury-riddled campaign. Those three combined for fewer than 250 innings in 2015, but could more than double that number in 2016. With multiple candidates for the fifth spot (Chase Anderson, Rubby De La Rosa, Zack Godley, prospect Aaron Blair), I saw the Diamondbacks as “a front-end starter away from a return to contention in ’16.”

Enter Greinke, who was by some measures the best pitcher in the major leagues in 2015 and is nonetheless one of the game’s true aces. Greinke’s 1.66 ERA this past season was clearly a fluke, but in his three years with the Dodgers he averaged 201 innings per year with a fielding independent pitching mark of 2.97 and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.30. That’s a front-end starter to be sure, and Greinke may also be the best all-around athlete of any starting pitcher in baseball having won and deserved the Gold Glove award in each of the last two seasons while also emerging as the top hitting pitcher in all of baseball, hitting .249/.300/.357 (85 OPS+) in his three years in L.A.

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Regardless of the flukiness of his 2015 performance, Greinke was worth nearly 10 wins above replacement to the Dodgers this past season per bWAR, and even if he doesn’t replicate that value for the Diamondbacks going forward, removing that player from the Dodgers’ roster is likely worth a few games in the standings in and of itself.

The Dodgers were reportedly wary of giving Greinke that sixth year for his age-37 season, as well they should have been. I’ve detailed over the last week or so how few elite pitchers have remained productive at that age. Greinke, however, has never been a big-time workhorse. His 236 1/3 innings between the regular and postseasons this year was a career high, and his early-career struggles suppressed his innings totals in his early twenties. Combine that with his average frame (lean, not too short) all-around athleticism and underappreciated intelligence, and he would seem to have the best chance of this year’s high-end free agent pitchers to still be contributing positively to his team in six years.

The money is another issue entirely. Running Greinke through our What’s He Really Worth system last week, I projected him to be worth just shy of $144.8 million over the next six years. A more sanguine version of that projection that took his 2015 performance at face value had him worth $196.7 million over the next six years. However, that projection had him worth 3.1 wins in his age-36 season, a figure only five pitchers have equaled or surpassed in their age-36 season or later this decade, with one of those five being knuckleballer R.A. Dickey and another being a 40-year-old Bartolo Colon, an outlier of a different kind (Chris Carpenter, Hiroki Kuroda and John Lackey, who on his new Cubs deal will make less than half of what Greinke will in their respective age-37 seasons, were the others). The Diamondbacks have clearly overpaid for Greinke, but they have done so with very real expectations of contention in the coming seasons. With a mere $50 million worth of commitments for 2016 prior to this signing (including the arbitration awards estimated by MLB Trade Rumors’ Tim Dierkes), that was a gamble the Diamondbacks could afford to make.

The question now is how will the Dodgers and Giants respond. Johnny Cueto is the obvious Plan B candidate, but his asking price of around $150 million was already greatly in excess of his likely value, and with Price and Greinke both surpassing $200 million and two rivals bidding over him, his price may have just gone up. The Dodgers top offer to Greinke was reportedly $155 million over five years, which may be as far as they’re willing to go on Cueto. Cueto may be two years younger, but his short, heavy build and history of shoulder problems are at least as problematic as Greinke’s age. After Cueto there’s a step down to the likes of Wei-Yin Chen, Jeff Samardzija and Mike Leake, who seem more likely to be the Giants’ targets, though as I wrote on Thursday, the Giants have the better team to surround such a starter than the Dodgers appear to at this stage of the off-season.

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Mere hours ago the idea of the Dodgers and Giants scrambling to catch up while the Diamondbacks were sitting pretty seemed absurd, but that appears to be where we are. The Diamondbacks are no longer sleepers in the NL West. With one outlandish signing, they have gone from up-and-coming to a legitimate power in their division, such that I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Dodgers finish third in 2016. Of course, there are many more moves to be made between then and now. Nonetheless, the balance of power in the NL West has unquestionably been altered by Zack Greinke’s willingness to take an absurd amount of money to suit up in the ugliest uniforms in baseball.