When Zack Greinke takes the mound on Thursday night, he’ll do so in the midst of the best streak of his Diamondbacks career. Over seven starts, he has logged a 1.16 ERA; he has been nothing short of dominant. He is again on the fringes of the Cy Young race, and few would argue that he doesn’t still rank among the game’s better pitchers.
Greinke is more than 2 1/2 years into the six-year, $206.5 million contract the Diamondbacks gave him prior to the 2016 season. To this point, it is hard to say he hasn’t lived up to the deal – that is, at least, as much as any free agent reasonably can be expected to live up to such a contract.
And, as a result, the Diamondbacks, whether due to good fortune, shrewd decision-making or a combination of both, are looking pretty good as the deal nears its halfway point.
Interestingly, this development is both foreseeable and surprising, and it comes into focus, in part, because of what has happened to one of his free-agent classmates in the winter of 2015-16, a pitcher who landed on the team Greinke will face on Thursday.
The recent news on San Francisco Giants right-hander Johnny Cueto is not good. Giants manager Bruce Bochy said this week there is a “strong possibility” Cueto will need Tommy John surgery, which could sideline him until 2020.
Cueto was the clear third-best option on the free-agent market three offseasons ago. And he actually was the Diamondbacks’ top target that winter. They offered him six years and $120 million. He declined. Less than a week later, they pivoted and signed Greinke, agreeing to terms on a record-setting deal in a negotiation that lasted literally one day.
Days before Greinke signed, the other top pitcher on the market, David Price, received a seven-year, $217 million deal from the Boston Red Sox. Cueto wound up with the Giants on a six-year, $130 million deal.
As it stands, the Diamondbacks are in the best position of those three teams. Cueto has pitched fairly well, but he’s been dealing with arm problems since last year, and elbow surgery would torpedo his value. As for Price, he hasn’t pitched badly, but he has fallen well short of expectations – and he, too, has dealt with arm problems, missing much of last season.
Greinke, meanwhile, has suffered some minor injuries, but he has missed the least amount of time and pitched the best of the three.
That Greinke, 34, has aged gracefully is no surprise. Most executives and scouts expected that he would. At the time of his signing, one rival evaluator told The Republic, “Nothing is ever guaranteed, but if you were going to pick a guy who was going to age well, that’s who I’d pick.”
Greinke’s performance this season has taken that conjecture and turned it into fact. His average fastball velocity is down about 2 mph from his last season with the Dodgers and yet he remains highly effective.
“I think it was a wise investment,” said Red Sox special assistant Tony La Russa, who was the Diamondbacks’ chief baseball officer at the time of the signing. “The reason, baseball-wise, that it was a good signing is there’s a premium on pitching, not throwing. To me, there’s a real similarity to the way Zack pitches and the way Greg Maddux pitched.
“Greg is a Hall of Famer. Pitching is about command, messing with hitters’ timing and their balance. You do that with a variety of pitches, changing speeds, up, down, all that stuff, and when you have that type of talent, intelligence and competitiveness like Zack has, there’s a strong likelihood, as long as he takes care of himself, that he’s going to pitch for the next three or four years or maybe even longer.”
Perhaps what’s most fascinating about Greinke’s standing as the most desirable of those three contracts is the path he’s taken to get here. His first year with the Diamondbacks was not ideal. He posted just a 4.37 ERA. He missed six weeks with an oblique strain and he finished the year with a shoulder issue.
That year, the Diamondbacks lost 93 games. At the time, they looked like they could be headed for a rebuild, and Greinke’s contract looked like an albatross.
But the Diamondbacks chose – wisely, it would seem now – to stick with him. After Greinke reportedly cleared revocable waivers in August 2016, the Dodgers expressed interest in acquiring him. The Diamondbacks passed. They also hung onto him through the winter rather than dealing him when his value was low – and when they likely would have had to pay down a huge chunk of his contract to facilitate a trade.
But Greinke has pitched so well over the past two seasons that his contract – exorbitant as it still might be – doesn’t seem quite so out of line. A straw poll of scouts, executives and agents at the winter meetings in December thought that, were he a free agent at the time, Greinke could have commanded a deal close to four years and $100 million, which was about $25 million less than what remained on his actual deal. Given his performance this year, what remains might be even more in line with his theoretical market value.
Of course, like any pitcher, Greinke is one pitch away from all of that changing. And the Diamondbacks could easily be sitting in the Giants’ position had Cueto accepted their offer. Going forward, Greinke’s contract will remain a challenge for the always-budget-conscious Diamondbacks. But they have to be pleased with the way it’s turned out.
“I think it’s fair to say,” La Russa said, “the team doesn’t get into the playoffs last year without him and the team wouldn’t be in contention this year without him.”
Reach Piecoro at (602) 444-8680 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @nickpiecoro.