Would $150 Million for Zack Greinke Be the Worst Free-Agent Pitcher Deal Ever?

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Would $150 Million for Zack Greinke Be the Worst Free-Agent Pitcher Deal Ever?
Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

It feels like just yesterday that we were discussing whether Zack Greinke would ever be able to thrive as a major league pitcher.

Now, we're discussing whether he may become one of the richest pitchers ever this winter. Baseball is weird like that.

It was reported a couple weeks ago by John Perrotto of Baseball Prospectus that Greinke is looking for a contract worth $150 million spread out over six years, and the latest word from Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com is that MLB executives think that the 29-year-old righty will indeed end up with such a contract.

For their part, Jim Bowden of ESPN and SiriusXM radio says that Greinke and his people are confident that history will be made when a new deal is signed:

In case you're wondering, the richest right-hander in the game right now is San Francisco Giants ace Matt Cain, who signed a six-year, $127.5 million extension back in April. Greinke is looking to beat that price tag by roughly $25 million.

The big question: Is Greinke worth it, or is this the disaster of disastrous free-agent pitcher contracts waiting to happen?

Well, I suppose that question boils down to a series of smaller questions. Let's take a look.

 

Question No. 1: Is Greinke the Best Right-Hander in Baseball?

In theory, the most expensive right-handed pitcher in baseball should also be the best right-handed pitcher in baseball, right?

If so, my guess is that an overwhelming majority of people don't view Greinke that way. He's good, but he's surely not that good. He may even be overrated.

Actually, you'd be surprised. The first few seasons of Greinke's career were nothing special, but his last four seasons are another matter entirely. Between his time with the Kansas City Royals, Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Angels, he compiled a 57-33 record, a 3.37 ERA, a 1.18 WHIP and a 4.02 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Per FanGraphs, Greinke has a WAR of 23.5 since 2009, which is good for fifth among all major league pitchers in that span. He even ranks ahead of CC Sabathia.

This has much to do with how well Greinke himself has performed if you disregard context. His ERAs have seen some fluctuation ever since he led the American League with a 2.16 ERA in 2009, but he's remained an elite performer in the eyes of sabermetric stats like FIP, xFIP and SIERA. These stats take only things a pitcher can control (strikeouts, walks, home runs, etc.) into account, and they paint a portrait of a pitcher who has actually been a little unlucky in the past three seasons.

But...

Even if we can accept that Greinke doesn't get the credit he deserves, that doesn't make him the best right-hander in baseball. I can think of at least two that I'd rather have over Greinke, and it just so happens that both of them have higher fWARs than him since 2009.

Yes, I'm talking about Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander.

Kelley L Cox-US PRESSWIRE
Pictured: The best in the business.

Verlander has the highest fWAR among all pitchers since the 2009 season, and King Felix ranks fourth on the list. Verlander, Hernandez and Greinke rate as highly similar pitchers due to their ability to post high K/BB ratios and low home run rates, but Verlander and Hernandez have both compiled over 120 more innings than Greinke over the last four seasons. 

That's a not insignificant amount of innings, and the divide between Greinke and Verlander and Hernandez gets even wider if you consider only the last three seasons. Verlander and Hernandez have significantly lower ERAs, better home run rates and more innings pitched than Greinke, and they're right there with him in terms of FIP, xFIP and SIERA.

So if you want to talk about right-handers who actually deserve to be paid more money than all the rest, the list has to start with Verlander and Hernandez rather than with Greinke. Either one of them would be more deserving of a $150 million contract than he is.

Not that they'll be complaining if Greinke does sign a deal like that, mind you. If he can get that much, they'll know that they can make more when their time comes.

 

Question No. 2: Is Greinke At Least Better Than Matt Cain?

If that first question struck you as being a little silly, that's totally understandable. 

After all, Greinke doesn't have to prove he's better than Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez. He just needs to prove he's better than Matt Cain, the keeper of baseball's richest contract ever for a right-hander.

Now this makes for a very interesting comparison.

Cain has been a good pitcher for longer than Greinke has, as he first topped 200 innings in 2007 and has proceeded to do so every year since. His 85-78 career record is nothing to write home about, but he bears an impressive 3.27 career ERA and a career WHIP of 1.17.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Cain also has two more World Series rings than Greinke.

In the last four seasons, Cain has posted an ERA under 3.00 three times and has compiled a record of 55-35, a 2.93 ERA, a 1.10 WHIP and a 2.90 K/BB over 882 innings. Greinke has won more games and has posted a better K/BB over the last four seasons, but Cain has him beat in ERA, WHIP and innings pitched. Score one (or three) for Cain.

However, this is clearly a case where Greinke's people won't be pointing to traditional stats in negotiations. They'll point to the fact that Greinke has Cain beat in WAR over the last four seasons, as well as in the nerdy stats like FIP, xFIP and SIERA.

And this makes sense. Greinke is a better strikeout artist than Cain, and he's been successful despite the fact he hasn't gotten to pitch half his games at AT&T Park. Take Cain out of San Francisco, and he's no better than Greinke—Cain's career splits indicate that this is indeed the case.

As such, Greinke has enough legs to stand on to demand more money than Cain got in his extension with the Giants. And since salaries are on the rise due to all the TV money being pumped into baseball these days, Greinke is not pushing his luck by asking for roughly $25 million more than Cain got.

Hence the reason executives around the league think Greinke will get what he wants in the end. And indeed, it helps that he has two of baseball's richest teams circling him in the Angels and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

 

Question No. 3: How Big of a Disaster Could Greinke's Contract Possibly Be?

Part of our original question was whether Greinke is worth a contract that would make him the highest-paid right-hander in baseball history. The answer is no if you ask whether he's the best right-hander in the game, but yes if you ask whether he's better than the richest right-hander in the game.

Because Greinke only has to measure himself against Cain this winter, let's just say the answer is yes by default. Let's assume he's worth it.

If so, good for him But that doesn't mean Greinke's deal couldn't become a disaster in the long run. He could sign it and then watch his career go off the rails due to injuries, ineffectiveness or both. 

If that comes to pass, Greinke's deal would find a place on the long, sad list of failed contracts given to free-agent pitchers. You'll be reminded of the worst of the worst if you punch up the list of highest-paid players of all time on Cot's Baseball Contracts.

However, Greinke would have some competition for the title of the worst contract ever handed out to a free-agent pitcher.

CC Sabathia's original pact with the New York Yankees has worked out just fine, but the same cannot be said of the deals handed out to Barry Zito, Mike Hampton, Kevin Brown and John Lackey, among others.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Barry Zito's contract is Scott Boras' crown jewel.

Zito will enter the final year of his seven-year, $126 million contract with the Giants in 2013. Though he certainly validated the existence of his contract in 2012, he hasn't provided good value for it throughout his Giants career. He has a 4.47 ERA and a 1.40 WHIP as a Giant, and he has yet to post an fWAR over 2.0 with the club (per FanGraphs).

The eight-year, $121 million deal Hampton signed with the Colorado Rockies in 2000 was just as big a disaster. Hampton compiled a 5.75 ERA and a 1.68 WHIP in two seasons in Colorado and then didn't pitch at all in 2006 or 2007 after joining the Atlanta Braves in 2003.

The seven-year, $105 million deal Brown signed with the Dodgers in 1998 paid off initially, as he won 18 games with a 3.00 ERA and 252.1 innings pitched in 1999 and had another strong season in 2000. However, he battled injuries for much of the remainder of his career and retired after the 2005 season.

The Boston Red Sox are still waiting for Lackey to live up to the five-year, $82.5 million contract he signed with them before the 2010 season. He has a 5.26 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP in two seasons as a Red Sox, and he missed all of 2012 recovering from Tommy John surgery.

The warning signs are fairly evident. Pitchers have short shelf lives, especially once they're on the bad side of 30. Injuries are the biggest threat, but you never know when a pitcher is going to just plain lose his stuff.

There is, however, a shortage of red flags where Greinke is concerned at this point in time. He's coming off a strong season in which he was successful both in a bandbox ballpark and in the offensively-superior American League. He did miss some time in 2011, but it was due to a rib injury he suffered playing basketball, not due to an arm or shoulder injury he suffered thanks to pitching.

There were reasons to complain when the other aforementioned contracts were handed out. Zito was clearly no longer a Cy Young-caliber pitcher when he got his contract. Hampton was signing up to pitch at the worst pitching park in the majors. Brown was already in his mid-30s when he signed with the Dodgers. Lackey was clearly not the pitcher he had been in his brilliant 2007 season when he signed with the Red Sox.

Greinke would seem to be in an entirely different boat. When he signs, nobody should assume that the worst is going to happen.

 

The Grand Conclusion

We should all realize that Greinke is going to get what he wants this winter. He has at least two rich bidders on the line, and it's really not that hard for him to prove that he deserves to be paid more than the most expensive right-hander already in the game.

But that doesn't mean any of us will have to like it.

Shoot, I won't. I get the feeling that I'm a bigger Greinke fan than most, but watching him make more money than Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez for a couple years will bother me. I'll totally understand why he's making more money than them, mind you, but it will still bother me all the same.

Will $150 million for Zack Greinke be an overpay?

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However, you won't get me to say that Greinke's new employer will have made a colossal mistake. As far as this year's market is concerned, a $150 million contract for a pitcher of Greinke's caliber won't be an overpay. That's the going rate for top pitchers, and all the TV money out there is going to make this year's going rate look rather petty in a few years' time.

As for how big of a disaster Greinke's deal could become down the line, my opinion is that it's going to take a lot for it to become the biggest disaster ever as far as past free-agent pitchers go. Zito's still strikes me as the worst, as he wasn't even able to find success upon moving over to the National League and into AT&T Park, and he was bad enough down the stretch in 2010 to be left off the Giants' postseason roster. It took until this year for Zito to provide some value for his contract.

There's little reason to think that Greinke is about to go walking down the same path as Zito. He's still relatively young, he's pitched well in recent years and, for all we know, he's healthy too.

Whoever signs him will be taking a risk, but not an unnecessary risk.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. Salary figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

 

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