Early Free Agent Fantasy: The Case For Zack Greinke

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As you may know, the Cubs have lots of money coming off the books this season despite having to pay Alfonso Soriano (still!), rolling the dice on a Starlin Castro extension and possibly giving an arbitration raise to Matt Garza.  This means that if they wanted to, they could make a splash in free agency.  The question is how much they want to make that splash, as the team as constructed is nowhere close to contention and the free agent market is pretty thin.  It’s no secret that the Cubs need pitching, especially starting pitching.  The name at the top of the list, should he be allowed to hit free agency, is Zack Greinke.

I got to take my son to Wrigley Field to watch Zack Greinke get dinked and dunked to death this spring and it was a good game from the Cubs’ standpoint.  One bad game does not a bad pitcher make.  I mean, even Justin Verlander has his clunkers and nobody calls him a bad pitcher.  People might point to his anxiety issues or his personality and think he’s not a good fit for Chicago.  Joe Posnanski actually has a pretty good blog from a couple years back about that, and I think that if he were brought in, he’d be just fine because the Cubs would take the precautions that they never did with your favorite douchebag, Milton Bradley, or with Carlos Zambrano, to protect him from the media and give him some PR lessons.  Because acquiring Greinke is going to be a huge investment and you definitely don’t want to mess this one up.

If you check out the free agent list from the previous blog on who the Cubs might think about, you’ll see that aside from Zack Greinke, there’s little left on the shelf.  Matt Cain and Cole Hamels have been extended.  Other pitchers are further away from free agency or on the wrong side of 30.  There’s going to be a crazy bidding war for Greinke coming up.  And that’s if the Angels are unable to retain him.  Even the Milwaukee Brewers tried to extend him to a $100MM deal before he was traded to Los Angeles of Anaheim or whatever that stupid name is.  If you look at the comps, Cain just barely turned 28 and Hamels is about to turn 29.  Greinke will be 29 when the next season starts.  They are still in their primes.  Cain got a 5-year, $112.5MM extension (obviously discounted since he stayed with the parent club) while Hamels got an extension that could be up to 7 years, $158MM.  So we’re looking at the neighborhood of about $22.5MM per year for at least five seasons.

Is Greinke as good of a pitcher as Cain or Hamels?  ERA+ suggests that he is not.  But if you look at his peripherals, Greinke doesn’t give up a lot of homers (good for Wrigley Field), has pretty good control with limiting the number of walks and hit batsmen, and has a decent strikeout rate, though not as nuts as Jeff Samardzija‘s strikeout rate this season.  Did I mention that he was on the right side of 30?

In a vacuum teams may have been able to use the fact that Greinke may not be as good as Cain or Hamels to keep his contract down a bit.  In practice, though, he and whoever represents him has to know that he is the best option available on the market this offseason.  He’ll probably get the $22.5MM annually at least, and maybe up to the annual salary Cliff Lee got (about $25MM).  The Angels have to be offering at least that much, which means the Cubs will have to beat that offer.  Is it worth it?

Looking at Greinke’s career, you can make the case that despite the ERA fluctuations he’s actually been a consistent pitcher based on defense-independent pitching metrics such as the fielding-independent pitching (FIP).  Over the past few seasons his FIP has been 3.56 or less and his xFIP (adjusted to league average) is pretty close to his FIP, suggesting his performance isn’t too dependent on good fortune.  His performance in Milwaukee and Anaheim over the past couple seasons has been pretty good, especially this season after the trade when he was able to shake off some early league-switch rust and help the Angels get back into contention before fading late in one of the toughest divisions in MLB.  I would argue that Greinke is the real deal.

One way to cure those anxiety issues.

I don’t know that the Angels will want to let him go.  I don’t know who else is likely to bid on him, and whether the Cubs will want to give it a go.  We’re talking about an investment of at least five years, so let’s go with a base of 5 years/$125MM with options for a sixth and seventh year for $25MM each.  That’s $175MM, slightly less than what the Yankees gave CC Sabathia overall.  It’s a hefty chunk of change.  The good news is that because of Greinke’s consistency and his age, he’s still likely to be effective by the end of that contract.   This hypothetical contract is to get him in the fold NOW, and help the Cubs win sooner rather than later when they have financial flexibility, are unable to spend out the nose for drafting and international free agent signings due to the new CBA, AND without having to cough up a draft pick because Greinke was traded mid-season.  The financial flexibility also allows them to try to sign other free agents.  This could work.  I can’t guarantee that Greinke will even want to come to Chicago, but the Cubs should at least try.

And if you need extra convincing, his wife is really hot.  We won’t know whether Zack Greinke will be available until six days after the World Series ends, but this is definitely something to anticipate.

PS: I know I’ve been championing the rebuild mantra all season, but I didn’t actually realize how much the Cubs had to spend.  If the numbers are right and the Cubs are only responsible for less than $70MM next season with arbitration raises and what not included, then they have something like $40-50MM to play with to have a reasonable payroll and stay under the luxury tax threshold.  And they’d still have enough for the draft and player development plus amateur international signings.  Theo and Jed have talked about acquiring impact players and attacking this rebuild from two fronts via both the minors and by getting the right pieces in place through trade and signings.  This certainly fits the mold.  Best pray that the Angels drop the ball so that Theo and Jed can give this the old college try.

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