Ken Kendrick, the Diamondbacks’ managing general partner, made the call at about noon MT on Friday, Dec. 4.
The D-backs were about 5½ hours away from reaching a six-year, $206.5 million agreement with free-agent right-hander Zack Greinke. But at that point, they had yet to even inform Greinke’s agent of their interest in the pitcher.
Kendrick called team president Derrick Hall, who was preparing to do a television interview about the D-backs’ new uniforms, which the team had unveiled the previous night. The two had spoken for a week, maybe a week-and-a-half, about pursuing Greinke. But the conversations always ended the same way, with Kendrick and Hall agreeing, “We’re just not going to jump in that game.”
The D-backs already had made free-agent right-hander Johnny Cueto a $120 million offer, an offer that the pitcher had rejected. They were focusing on less-expensive pitchers, on trades. But, as Hall recalls, he and Kendrick kept saying to each other, “Maybe we’re doing the wrong thing here. Should we go after Greinke?”
Sometime that morning, Kendrick finally decided that the answer was yes. He had figured out a structure of deferred payments that could make a $200 million contract work. He made the call to Hall, setting in motion a frantic, whirlwind afternoon that led to Greinke becoming the highest-paid player, by average annual value, in major-league history.
All in a matter of 5½ hours.
Hall, after taking the call from Kendrick, finished his TV interview, jumped in his car to drive back to Chase Field and phoned Tony La Russa, the D-backs’ chief baseball officer.
La Russa was at the team’s spring training complex in nearby Scottsdale, meeting with manager Chip Hale and his coaches.
“Can you talk?” Hall asked La Russa.
La Russa stepped outside, and Hall dropped the same bombshell that Kendrick had dropped on him: They were going for Greinke.
Hall asked La Russa to call Greinke’s agent, Casey Close of Excel Sports Management. (Close declined to be interviewed for this story, as did Kendrick.)
The entire baseball world knew that Greinke was close to choosing between the Dodgers and Giants. Greinke, at his introductory news conference in Phoenix a week later, would say that he was “minutes away” from going to a different team, believed to be the Dodgers.
“Tell him hold on. I’m on my way to the office,” Hall recalls telling La Russa. “You and I will call him together, if he’ll take one more call.’”
La Russa contacted Close, who told him that he needed to talk to Greinke to determine whether it was too late for the D-backs to make an offer.
Greinke was on his way home to Florida from the players’ association meetings in San Diego, but Close found him and called La Russa back quickly.
“It’s not too late,” he said.
Hall, while scrambling to get back to Chase Field, also had called his executive assistant, Brooke Mitchell.
He wanted to contact Close the moment he got back to his office but could not locate the agent’s number. He told Mitchell that if the number was not in her computer, she should get it from De Jon Watson, the D-backs’ senior vice president of baseball operations.
Mitchell, after failing to find the number, ran over to Watson’s office, but his door was shut. She grabbed an intern’s desk phone just outside Watson’s office and called him on his cell phone. Watson was in assistant GM Bryan Minniti’s office discussing the upcoming winter meetings.
“I thought it was one of the kids (interns),” Watson says. “I was like, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ She said, ‘No, this is Brooke. I need Greinke’s agent. Who is Greinke’s agent?’ I said, ‘It’s Casey Close, why?’ And she said, ‘I need his phone number.’ And I’m thinking to myself, ‘What does she need this number for?’
“Well, she didn’t tell me anything. So I said, come in my office, I’ll give it to you. She comes down, I give her Casey’s number. My phone rings two minutes later, and it’s Derrick Hall. He goes, ‘Hey, where you at? I need you to come over my office.’ I said, ‘What’s happening?’ He goes, ‘Ken just called me and said we can go after Greinke.’ And I’m like, ‘WHAT?’ ”
It was game on.
Hall says he returned to the office at about 12:30 p.m., then set up a conference call with La Russa and Close.
Watson recalls telling Hall that, “If you’re going to do it, you’d better go in big.” The D-backs did not know how much the Dodgers and Giants had offered. But the expectation throughout the industry was that Greinke wanted to beat David Price’s new $31 million average salary with the Red Sox over five or six years.
Watson recalls telling Hall that, “If you’re going to do it, you’d better go in big.” … The DBacks indeed went in big with their first offer. Six years, $200 million.
Thus, any team that truly wanted Greinke had to bid at least five years, $155 million.
The D-backs indeed went in big with their first offer.
Six years, $200 million.
“OK,” Hall recalls Close saying, “you guys are definitely in the ballpark.”
At that point, serious negotiations commenced. D-backs GM Dave Stewart, on personal business in California, texted with Hall and phoned during breaks. La Russa was at the spring training facility, available by phone. Watson was in the office, talking with Hall.
“It was quick,” Hall recalls. “It was non-stop.”
As Watson recalls, Close called back with a counter-offer. Hall asked Watson whether the D-backs should go a little higher.
“We’re in this already,” Watson replied. “So, let’s make sure we have a chance to get this guy.”
The D-backs, mind you, had not spoken to Greinke. They would not speak to him until after the deal was done. But from the beginning, they liked what they heard from Close about Greinke’s interest in joining their club.
La Russa recalls Close telling them, “We’ve got to work on this. He really wants to go to you guys. He’s thrilled that you jumped in. He has been watching from the other dugout. He respects the way you guys play.”
Close told La Russa and Hall that Greinke had spent time with Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and center fielder A.J. Pollock at the All-Star Game, telling them how much he admired their club.
Greinke, known for being a student of the game, had even specified to Close certain aspects of the D-backs’ game that appealed to him – the way they shifted, the way they ran the bases.
“I’m telling you, they’re an ace away from being legitimate,” Greinke told Close, according to Hall. “I think I can help.”
The D-backs felt validated.
Hall thought to himself, This is our guy.
If Kendrick was acting on impulse, it was calculated impulse.
The D-backs in 2016 will begin a 20-year contract with FOX Sports Arizona reportedly worth more than $1.5 billion. That’s about $75 million per year in additional income, and the D-backs also gained a stake in the network as part of the deal.
The franchise still is paying the remnants of the reported $250 million in deferrals negotiated by former owner Jerry Colangelo; outfielder Bernard Gilkey (retired since 2001 and not a Diamondback since 2000) according to the Arizona Republic, is getting paid through 2017. But to secure Greinke, the D-backs had to defer more than $60 million, and their new TV deal gave them that opportunity.
As the negotiations progressed, Watson grew confident.
“We made the last little adjustment, and it was pacing time,” Watson recalls. “When Derrick starts pacing, I know that something good is getting ready to happen. He doesn’t really move around like that. But he was pacing back and forth. He was like, ‘You think we got this?’ And I was like, ‘Hell yeah, we got this.’ ”
Watson had negotiated with Close when the D-backs signed the No. 1 pick in last year’s draft, shortstop Dansby Swanson. He had scouted Greinke when the pitcher was at Apopka (Fla.) H.S., and became reacquainted with him in 2013 and ’14, when both were with the Dodgers.
“The conversation I was hearing on the other side was pretty direct,” Watson says. “When Casey gets to that stage, with that kind of verbiage, I was like, ‘We’re in this.’ I felt like we were sitting pretty good.”
Less than a month before, Watson and Minniti had sat with Close at the general managers’ meetings in Boca Raton, Fla., discussing Close’s free-agent clients. Close mentioned Greinke last, and Watson could only reply, “The odds of that happening would be kind of long at this particular stage.”
On the afternoon of Dec. 4, the D-backs jumped onto a bigger, bolder stage. Their odds of signing Greinke were improving rapidly, and dramatically.
Hall says he went around the room as the talks continued, asking Watson, special assistant Luis Gonzalez and others to assess the D-backs’ chances of landing Greinke.
At first, the answer was 60-40. Then, 80-20.
“I was having fun with it, but the adrenaline was pumping for sure,” Hall says. “There was a little bit of nervous energy in the room.”
The nervous energy grew after FOX Sports reported at 4:23 p.m. that the D-backs were pursuing Greinke; Watson says he feared the Dodgers and Giants would jump back in. But by then, Minniti was drafting a letter of agreement. The D-backs were not about to lose their man.
“There was nothing officially agreed to, but I said, ‘D, we got this. Be patient. We got it,’ " Watson recalls. "I know when Casey gives you his word on something . . . I just felt we were pretty close with the way he was finishing up the conversation.”
By about 5:30 p.m., the deal was done.
Zack Greinke, who at the start of the day had not even known that the Diamondbacks wanted him, had an agreement with the team, pending a physical.
“It’s hard to grasp, but truth is stranger than fiction, isn’t that the saying?” La Russa asks.