It's not often that you can sum up a $147 million contract with one word, but in the case of the six-year deal that Zack Greinke reached with the Dodgers on Saturday night you can do just that.
To put it simply, the contract is circumstantial.
Before we get into why I choose that word, let's dive into the details. Once Greinke finalizes the deal by undergoing a physical, he will be the owner of the second-highest contract ever issued to a pitcher (CC Sabathia, $161 million in 2009). It is the largest pact ever for a right-hander.
Los Angeles has been on a spending spree as of late, adding Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford via trade, and now signing Greinke away from the Rangers and Angels. Greinke began the 2012 season with the Brewers, who opted to trade him to the Angels at midseason with free agency on the horizon.
The move turned out to be a good one for Milwaukee and a bad one for the Angels, who sent a package to the Brewers that yielded a third-place finish in the American League West and just 13 starts.
The Dodgers, meanwhile, will make baseball history when they take the field for Opening Day 2013. With the signing of Greinke, they are already projected to have a payroll of more than $200 million. No National League team has ever surpassed that mark and it seems unlikely that they'll avoid the plateau.
Greinke wasn't a household name until this offseason, but is a very good pitcher with an elite history. He won the AL Cy Young award as a member of the Royals in 2009 when he posted a 2.16 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 242 strikeouts in 33 starts. He is among the most durable pitchers in baseball, averaging about 207 innings per season since 2008.
Things got dicey in 2010, his final season in Kansas City, when he went 10-14 with a 4.17 ERA and averaged 7.4 strikeouts per nine innings. He allowed almost exactly a hit per inning, while hitting a career-high seven batters.
Greinke made 34 starts in 2012 and was above average for both the Brewers and Angels. He posted a 3.48 ERA, his lowest since 2009, and struck out 200 batters for the third time in four seasons. He also had great command, striking out 3.7 batters per walk. He's averaged at least three times as many strikeouts as walks in each of the last six seasons.
As you might expect, Greinke's best numbers came during his Cy Young season. He had an eye-popping 10.1 WAR in 2009 (first in the AL), well above the rate you would want from even an MVP-caliber player, but hasn't even reached half of that total in a single season since. In fact, if you combine his WAR numbers from the last three years you get 7.9. You can take that one of two ways. He was either so dominant in 2009 that he will forever struggle to match that level of effectiveness, or he was so "average" his last 95 starts that he hasn't contributed even close to as much as he did over those 33 magical appearances four years ago.
You would fully expect the 2009 version of Greinke to land this type of historic contract, but he hasn't been the best pitcher in baseball – or really close to it – recently.
His career ERA (3.77) is good for just 23rd among active pitchers and his WHIP (1.247) has him ranked 20th. Greinke does strike batters out at an elite rate. Only fourteen current pitchers average more strikeouts per nine innings (8.035) and he'll team with Clayton Kershaw to form quite the tandem.
Kershaw won the 2011 National League Cy Young and finished second in the 2012 voting. The Dodgers have two of the best pitchers in baseball, but Greinke is far from the better of the two. Meanwhile, Kershaw enters the 2013 season with just a year and $11,000,000 left on his contract.
It seems like a logical progression that Kershaw will soon receive a new deal from the Dodgers, but as of late last month it was reported that talks between the two sides hadn't yet begun. Kershaw is a left-hander and has a more extensive history of success, so it's easy to see him receiving a contract even larger than the one Greinke has landed.
How can one Major League team afford to pay $50 million-plus annually for just two pitchers?
That takes us back to the circumstantial label I placed on Greinke's contract. There are three circumstances that led to Greinke agreeing to a six-year, $147 million deal with the Dodgers.
- It would be wrong to call this free agent class shallow, but Greinke benefited from a lack of top-end starting pitching and question marks surrounding the best position players. He was head-and-shoulders above the rest of the starters available and we'll see a lot of those names come off the board now that Greinke is gone and the market has been established. Anibal Sanchez, Edwin Jackson, Dan Haren and Hiroki Kuroda were a good group of contemporaries for him to go up against.
- The Dodgers are spending freely and have made the Yankees look frugal, which is no small feat. This is a unique situation because the team's financial situation has been made transparent by a recent sale and infamous television-rights deal with FOX that is still in the negotiations stages. Since the Guggenheim Baseball Group purchased the Dodgers in the spring, they have added more than $500 million in player salaries. Ownership is throwing cash around in anticipation of their deal with FOX being worth more than $6 billion. That's why they can afford and were willing to give Greinke the second-largest contract a pitcher has ever received to be their No. 2. It's almost laughable, but you can't fault the recipient in this case. Greinke should send both the Guggenheim Group and FOX a high-end Christmas gift basket because gears they put in place months ago allowed him to land this deal.
- You might say that the Dodgers are "all in" and adding Greinke puts their pitching staff on par with what should be a star-studded batting order. They have a lineup that consists of Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez and once healthy, Carl Crawford. The pitching staff doesn't look quite as top-heavy now, with Kershaw and Greinke headlining a unit that also has Josh Beckett, Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly, Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang under contract. At least one, and possibility two, of those starters will be dealt. Capuano and Harang are the leading candidates. The Dodgers needed to sign Greinke, as silly as it sounds, to keep pressure off the offense and, in some ways, Kershaw. Allowing him to re-sign with the Angels would have been embarrassing, akin to the Yankees getting beat by the Mets when money is involved. The Rangers were in play as well, but may have been distracted by the possibility of re-signing Josh Hamilton.
The outcome is obvious, but in the interest of full disclosure I will issue the standard letter grade to both sides of this deal, otherwise it wouldn't be a 'Grading the Deal.'
Grade for Greinke: A
The Greinke family is set for life because Zack won a Cy Young in 2009, pitched well in 2011 and 2012, the Dodgers are flush with cash and he was the biggest prize of the offseason. The only demerit on his grade is the lack of a no-trade clause, which was reported in the hours following news of the agreement. With a clause, he would have controlled his baseball life for the next six years while cashing humongous checks. Without one, he'll have to cash those checks with the possibility of a trade in the back of his mind. Before you scoff at the notion of someone taking on his salary in the coming years, remember the deal this same team consummated with the Red Sox in August.
Grade for Dodgers: C-
There isn't much to say, because any argument against the Dodgers giving Greinke $147 million will be met with a shrug and 'They can afford it,' but that's not the point. They are in the business of winning baseball games and World Series titles, not compiling the most expensive lineup the National League (and maybe eventually the game) has ever seen. Greinke makes them better and boosts their already strong chances of a playoff run in 2013, but will be vastly overpaid from now to 2018. Mark my words: this will become an albatross of a contract perhaps second only to the pact Alex Rodriguez is currently playing under in New York.
Look at the numbers. Greinke has been outright dominant once in his career. He pitched in quiet Kansas City while doing so, won a Cy Young and has been a solid No. 2 starter since. Contracts have increased in value at an alarming rate as the years have progressed, but the ones in the neighborhood of this one (Sabathia's $161 million and the $144 million deal Cole Hamels signed with the Phillies in July) go to a different kind of pitcher.
Sabathia is a No. 1 in every sense of the word; finishing games when his team needs him to, starting on short rest to carry middling clubs to the playoffs and doing so while throwing the ball with his left hand. Hamels won an NLCS and World Series MVP in 2008, when he was just 24, and his career ERA is almost half a run better than that of Greinke.
But again, what can you say? If the Dodgers win the World Series next fall, or even in 2014, and Greinke plays a significant role in getting them there, the goal will be accomplished and the salary will gladly be paid.
We might characterize Greinke as overpaid, but is it technically overpaying if you can afford it?