The Dodgers apparent acquisition of Zack Greinke is the kind of move that drives me nuts. There's little question in my mind that Greinke makes the Dodgers a better team next season. There's also no question in my mind that Greinke is now spectacularly overpaid and he will not be worth his contract. As a baseball analyst and former MLB team employee, this type of paradox frustrates me, because I think players should be paid what they're worth. But Dodger fans should feel reasonably optimistic about this move.
Greinke is one of the most talented pitchers in baseball. He's a terrific all-around athlete who throws a mid-90s fastball, a plus curveball, and a devastating slider. His 2009 season was a dream year, in which Sports Illustrated called him the best pitcher in baseball and he won the American League Cy Young Award with the Kansas City Royals.
But since that magical 2009 year, Greinke has been a little underwhelming, posting ERAs of 4.17, 3.83, and 3.53. That's pretty solid, but it's not $147 million solid. Greinke may now have the largest contract for any right-handed pitcher in MLB history, but I'm not sure if he's even been one of the Top-10 right-handed pitchers in baseball for the past three years. His lone postseason appearance came in 2011 with the Milwaukee Brewers, where he served up a 6.48 ERA in three starts. At a time when seemingly anyone can make an All-Star team, Greinke was selected to the game just once in 2009.
Furthermore, Greinke's diagnosis of social anxiety disorder and depression has been well-documented. He's been known to be aloof with teammates, and I heard multiple LA media members complain about covering him during his brief stint with the Angels this past year. Hearing people talk about Greinke, one might think his name is actually Zack Grumpy. But to his credit, Greinke has been something of a model citizen for athletes with mental health problems, proving that you can have successful career by seeking help and receiving proper treatment.
Starting pitching wasn't exactly a weakness for the Dodgers coming into 2013. Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang didn't perform that much worse than Greinke this past year. Josh Beckett was pretty good in Dodger blue. South Korean pitcher Ryu Hyun-Jin is an intriguing player. It appears that Chad Billingsley's elbow is alright. Ted Lily should be returning next year. And they still have Clayton Kershaw who is probably the best pitcher in the National League.
I'm not saying that's necessarily lights out, but the idea that a team needs all big name ace starting pitchers to win has been disproven. Consider the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies who won the World Series with a postseason rotation of Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer, and Joe Blanton. Since then, the Phillies acquired Cliff Lee (twice), Roy Halladay, and Roy Oswalt, and they've gotten progressively worse each season. The 2011 St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series with a fairly modest rotation of Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse, and Edwin Jackson. Last year's Giants won it all with valuable starts from Ryan Vogelsong, Madison Bumgarner, and a washed up Barry Zito.
It's very difficult to predict where good pitching will come from, and it rarely comes from high-priced free agent acquisitions. Historically, the best pitchers have been home-grown products that organizations have developed themselves and know well. Since the Dodgers felt like they needed to add a starting pitcher this offseason, they were essentially forced to pay a "bad minor league system tax" regardless of who they signed, because they've developed so few players on their own and the free agent market for starters is so distorted.
I'm sure 29 other teams are grumbling at this signing as the free agent market for starting pitching is now further distorted. If an above-average No. 2 starter with social anxiety disorder can receive the largest contract ever for a right-hander, then what does that do for the dozen or so pitchers who are actually better than Greinke? Does this mean that Clayton Kershaw will receive $200 million when his contract is up for renewal?
But the larger implications aside, let's look at this deal in a vacuum. Is this a good deal for the Dodgers? The answer is probably yes. Having a rotation with Kershaw, Greinke, and Beckett sounds pretty sexy and should probably be better than the Giants with Cain, Bumgarner, and the hope that Tim Lincecum gets himself fixed.
Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang do have some trade value, and the Dodgers should be able to move them for either much-needed bullpen help, a fourth outfielder to start the season if Carl Crawford isn't ready, or even a decent minor league prospect.
$24.5 million a year is an absurd amount to pay Zack Greinke. Historically the odds are against him performing at a $24.5 million level for six consecutive seasons. But he is still a good pitcher who should be reasonably effective if left alone by the media and fans, and I think he'll like not being pressured to be the staff ace.
With $6-7 billion in TV money coming in, the Dodgers can afford to spend to their heart's content. This is only a bad deal if we find out there is a ceiling to what the Dodgers can spend, and suddenly in three years we're told that there's no money left for free agents because of the $600 million in payroll added this year.
But my hope is that in three years, the Dodgers will have a stronger minor league system and can start filling in their lineup with home-grown players. Some people think the Dodgers best acquisitions this year were Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, or Hanley Ramirez. I'd argue their best signings were Gerry Hunsicker, Bob Engle, and Pat Corrales, who bring much needed scouting and player development acumen to the organization.
With those guys in place, then the Dodgers shouldn't need to spend $147 million on an above-average No. 2 starter again.