“Pitchers break,” said Dodgers chairman Mark Walter in explaining that the team might be reluctant to offer a long-term contract to a pitcher this winter.
It’s a valid point, to be sure… and one that I don’t believe for a heartbeat. This team is built to win in 2013, and other than some outfield depth and potentially adding some competition to the left side of the infield, the offense is complete, Ned Colletti having handled most of that shopping over the summer. But despite having six veteran starters under contract, the rotation needs work. You have Clayton Kershaw and that’s wonderful, but then you’ve also got… what, exactly? A prayer about Chad Billingsley‘s elbow and four injury-prone, past-their-prime pitchers in Josh Beckett, Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang, & Ted Lilly. You can live with one of those guys as your last starter; maybe even two if you must. But three? All four? Not a chance. That’s not a rotation built to win a pennant, and existing contracts be damned: that’s not the rotation that we’ll see start 2013.
So you can be assured that the Dodgers are going to add at least one starter – my gut says two – and dump some busted veterans. You don’t need depth; you need a difference maker, of which there are previous few available. Over the next few days, we’ll look at some of the options the Dodgers might be checking in on.
Today, we start with Zack Greinke, the only no-doubt ace on the market. I feel like I shouldn’t have to read you his credentials, but I will. The 2009 AL Cy Young winner, Greinke has been one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball dating back to 2008. The company he keeps over that time is elite, to say the least. FIP of 3.05? Better than Justin Verlander & Felix Hernandez. K/9 of 8.75? Better than Roy Halladay & Jered Weaver. K/BB of 3.86? Better than CC Sabathia & Matt Cain. By just about any measure, Greinke is one of the ten best starting pitchers in baseball.
And it gets better. No pitcher is completely without injury risk, simply due to the demands of the position. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a better candidate to give you 200 innings a year than Greinke. Over the last five years, he’s made at least 32 starts and thrown 200 or more innings every single season other than 2011, and that was because of a freak injury where he broke some ribs playing basketball. Just look at his Baseball Prospectus injury card; other than the ribs, he missed a few days with right shoulder inflammation in 2010 and two weeks in camp that year with dental surgery. In a big league career dating back to 2004, that’s it.
Well, that’s mostly it. Fair or not, it’s impossible to discuss Greinke without noting the anxiety issues which cost him most of 2006 after he walked away from the game. You don’t have to look too hard to find a ton of examples of short-sighted people arguing that this somehow makes Greinke unable to pitch in big markets, as though Kansas City & Milwaukee aren’t still big league cities in front of thousands of people. I don’t subscribe to that at all; for one, that was six years ago, and for another, Grienke was just fine with the Angels after being traded last year. (He got off to a tough start, but over his final eight starts he was dominant, allowing only 13 earned runs in 57.1 innings with a 50/13 K/BB.) He might not work for the Yankees, but for any other team I’d have no concern about this.
So he’s great, he’s durable, and he’s young, having only turned 29 last week. Obviously, he won’t come cheaply. In addition to being the clear top pitcher available in a market flush with cash, he reportedly already turned down a five-year deal worth more than $100m from Milwaukee before they traded him to the Angels this summer.
Over the last year, Sabathia & Cole Hamels each signed extensions with their current teams for annual average values of about $24m/season. That’s also what Cliff Lee‘s AAV value is, and that’s the current benchmark for top of the line starting pitchers. Now, I’m not sure Greinke’s going to get quite that much. All three of those guys are lefties, and it’s hard to see traditional big spenders Philadelphia or New York – perhaps even Boston – in the market for Greinke. Still, he’s definitely getting north of $20m, probably for five or six years.
If we split the difference and say $22m, Greinke’s likely looking at a deal of something like 5/$110 or 6/$132. That’s hefty, to say the least, and especially so when you consider that Kershaw still needs to get locked up beyond 2014. If there’s only enough money to do one, then you definitely choose Kershaw. But if money is really no object… well, a rotation fronted by Kershaw & Greinke is beyond delicious. If you have to hand out a nine-figure deal to a pitcher, there’s few safer bets than Greinke.