Rangers Rumors: Would Inking Zack Greinke Instead of Josh Hamilton Be a Mistake?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 6, 2012

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 25:  Zack Greinke #23 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim pitches against the Seattle Mariners in the fifth inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 25, 2012 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

The Texas Rangers are going to make a huge splash in free agency this winter, and their choice would seem to be between ace right-hander Zack Greinke or slugging outfielder Josh Hamilton.

ESPN's Jayson Stark says there may be an answer to this dilemma:

Buzz this morning points toward Rangers zeroing in on Greinke &trading for a bat instead of signing Josh Hamilton & dealing for an arm

— Jayson Stark (@jaysonst) December 6, 2012

If so, then the Rangers would rather have a super-expensive arm than a super-expensive bat. And since Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com has said that Greinke's deal could be worth more than CC Sabathia's record contract, the Rangers would really be acquiring a super-duper-expensive arm.

And yes, I'm aware that Rangers boss Nolan Ryan told Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on Wednesday that the club could conceivably sign both players, but that's highly unlikely. Unless the Rangers are sitting on a mountain of gold, an oil deposit or a golden oil deposit, it's going to have to be one or the other.

The big question: Is choosing Greinke over Hamilton a good idea, or would the Rangers come to regret it?

My vote is for "good idea." 

After watching their starting pitchers post a 4.30 ERA that ranked 20th in baseball in 2012, the Rangers are in need of a rotation upgrade this winter. In Greinke, they'd be signing the top free-agent starter on the market and a guy who really doesn't get the credit he deserves.

Greinke's last three seasons haven't been as tremendous as his 2009 season, when he won the AL Cy Young on the strength of a 16-8 record and a league-best 2.16 ERA. But as I've noted before, the advanced stats suggest pretty strongly that Greinke has been a little on the unlucky side since 2010.

Greinke only has a 3.83 ERA over the last three seasons, but he ranks eighth among all starters in FIP, fifth in xFIP and tied for seventh in SIERA, according to FanGraphs. Stats like these take context out of the equation and look at how a given pitcher performed in regards to the things only he could control. In this case, they confirm that Greinke is one of the league's elite pitchers.

Greinke also has youth and durability on his side. He turned 29 in late October, and he's pitched at least 170 innings in each of the last five seasons. He surely would have crossed the 200-inning threshold in 2011 had a freak rib injury not delayed the start of his season.

John Perrotto of USA Today and Baseball Prospectus reported last month that Greinke is on the lookout for a six-year deal, and that's presumably still the case even with reports of his asking price escalating to Sabathia levels. The Rangers would thus have to pay Greinke more than $25 million per year for six years in a contract that would cover his age 29-34 seasons.

It's not unthinkable that the Rangers could get fair value for a contract spanning these seasons. Per Baseball-Reference.com, there have been five pitchers since the turn of the century that have compiled a WAR of at least 20.0 between the ages of 29 and 34. Pedro Martinez and Roy Halladay compiled WARs of at least 30.0 in said age span.

Sabathia's not on that list, but he's still only 32 and has compiled a 14.7 WAR and pitched 675 innings since he turned 29. To date, he's been totally worth his contract.

The Rangers would be hoping to get Sabathia-like value if they were to sign Greinke, and their hopes would not be misplaced.

If they were to commit $25 million or so per year to Hamilton, on the other hand...

Hamilton has plenty of pop in his bat and is a true game-changer when he's feeling right, but the warning signs are clear and present. Everyone knows that his health comes and goes, and his body isn't likely to age well due to both his age and past problems with substance abuse.

Just as concerning are Hamilton's problems with plate discipline. Per FanGraphs, he swung at more pitches out of the strike zone than any other hitter in baseball in 2012, and he also led all hitters in swinging-strike percentage by a wide margin.

This may not be a one-year thing. Hamilton's "O-Swing" percent has climbed higher every year he's been in the league, and his strikeout rate has been on the rise each of the last three years.

Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com has indicated that a deal between Hamilton and the Rangers would be for four years, likely in the neighborhood of $25 million per year. That's where the market price should be after B.J. Upton signed a deal worth $15 million per year, and John Perrotto noted last month that $25 million per is what Hamilton is looking for.

The choice before the Rangers boils down to a pretty simple question: Do they want to pay roughly $25 million per year for six years of quality production from Greinke, or roughly $25 million per year for four years of unpredictable production from Hamilton?

If Stark is to be believed, the Rangers would prefer to walk through Door No. 1. My own analysis tells me that they have some shrewd and practical thinkers in their front office. Bravo.

However, here's the obligatory "but..."

The Rangers would be signing up to be an excellent run prevention team if they sign Greinke and move Craig Gentry to center field, but run production would be a concern. If Hamilton follows Mike Napoli out the door, the Rangers will be waving goodbye to 67 total home runs from 2012. Production like that can't be tossed aside without any concerns.

Thus, we arrive at the second key part of Stark's report: the Rangers possibly following up a Greinke signing with a trade for a bat.

It's no real secret as to who the Rangers would prefer to acquire. They've been linked to Arizona Diamondbacks right fielder Justin Upton for weeks, and Ken Rosenthal broke a story this week about a potential multi-team trade brewing that would ultimately send Upton to Texas.

Rosenthal tweeted on Thursday that the Rangers and Diamondbacks are still working on the deal, but the vibes aren't good. He's since tweeted this:

Official involved in Upton talks: "Not dead. Never has been. But doesn't have more legs than two weeks ago." #Diamondbacks #Rangers #Rays

— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 6, 2012

It's a complicated situation—MLB Trade Rumors has all the links you need to get a grasp on it—but it seems the big hold-up in the talks is that the D-Backs want to get a shortstop in the trade who they could control for an extended amount of time. The Rangers don't have one they're willing to part with, and other options don't seem to strike Arizona's fancy.

Still, the Rangers have the right idea. Upton would be a defensive upgrade over Nelson Cruz in right field, and he also has the stick to account for some of the production the Rangers would be losing with Hamilton heading elsewhere.

The hope would obviously be for Upton to re-realize his 30-30 potential while posting an OPS in the .900 range, but the Rangers could get by even if Upton were play more along the lines of his 2012 performance. His production would be well below the production they would otherwise be getting from Hamilton, but the Rangers would have the pitching and defense to account for the difference.

Whether they get Upton or some other high-ceiling hitter via a trade, pitching and defense will be the flavors of the month in Texas if the Rangers choose to commit their millions to Greinke rather than Hamilton. It would be a change, for sure, but not a mistake.

Power-oriented approaches in 2010, 2011 and 2012 weren't quite good enough to net the Rangers a championship. The time is right for them to pursue other avenues to the top of the baseball mountain.


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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