If I may, I would like to posit three reasons, in no particular order, for Zack Greinke signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks instead of the Los Angeles Dodgers or the San Francisco Giants or some other deep-pocketed team that actually won more games than it lost last season.
– Greinke wasn’t interested in being No. 2. No matter what he did in Los Angeles, he wasn’t going to start on Opening Day unless Clayton Kershaw ruptured his spleen or something. Similarly, thanks to the 2014 World Series, Madison Bumgarner’s going to remain the Giants’ No. 1 starter for a while. At least in the hearts of Giants fans.
Trust me, friends: I am assuredly not trying to read Zack Greinke’s mind, for the simple reason that I’m not capable of such a thing. I’m merely raising the possibility, because while we’ve all heard stories about how different Greinke is, you don’t achieve what he’s achieved without being wildly competitive. And part of being wildly competitive often means chafing at the thought of being No. 2.
Which brings me to…
– Greinke was interested in being, for a moment at least, the highest-paid pitcher in the major leagues. Pitcher? Just say player. Because Greinke’s $34.4 million average annual value (AAV) blows away the No. 2 men on the list, Miguel Cabrera and David Price ($31 million apiece). Barring renegotiations or extensions, Greinke will get more than both Kershaw and Max Scherzer – the fourth and fifth players on the list, at this moment – through 2020, at least. Granted, $60 million of Greinke’s salary is deferred until 2022 and beyond, which makes the real value – all the union and league accountants care about, really – around $194 million. Which would still make Greinke baseball’s highest-paid player. But just barely. (And yes, there’s that little matter of the state income tax being a lot higher in California than Arizona. I don’t often think about taxes, but I’m told some people do.)
– Greinke’s a little more bullish on the Diamondbacks than you might be. Sounds that way, anyhow: "There’s a couple things I was really looking at with teams besides the money, I guess. The No. 1 was to have a team that could have a chance to win a World Series for several years. … My main goal was a team that was competing each year to get a World Series.”
First, it’s worth going back and parsing that passage. Greinke is not saying his “main goal” was getting a World Series. He’s saying his main goalbesides the money is getting a World Series. Which is true for almost every player, right? Oh, sure: some of them want to play close to home, or not in New York, or whatever. But for most players, Nos. 1 through 10 involve money, and then No. 11 or 12 is playing for a winner.
Which is perfectly rational! If only because players aren’t very good at knowing which teams are going to be winning in, say, three or four years. Let alone five or six. Did anybody have the Pirates and Royals and Astros winning? Did anybody have the Red Sox and Phillies losing? If you’re Zack Greinke, you might as just figure if somebody has the wherewithal to sign you, they’re serious about winning. And obviously pretty smart.*
* and yes, the Marlins are the exception to this rule.
Granted, you can make some rough guesses about the future. In the short term, teams that were good last season will probably be good next season; teams that were bad will probably be bad. In the long term, teams that have historically been good will continue to be good, due to market size and ownership. The Cardinals, according to a fascinating article that Bill James recently published, have been a “strong franchise” for 95 years; the Dodgers have been strong for 77 years, the Red Sox for 49 years. So you probably wouldn’t want to bet against any of them having a winning season in, say, 2018.
Still, there’s enough unpredictability that if a player takes substantially less money to sign with a team he thinks is going to be really good, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll regret that decision a few years later. So if that’s the choice, he might as well just go for the money. Which seems to be exactly what Greinke did.
But it’s not like the Diamondbacks can’t compete, at least in the short term. Last season, they were essentially a .500 team. Most of their starting pitchers were little better than replacement-level, which means Greinke makes the Diamondbacks four or five games better, all by himself (assuming he regresses to his career norms). So now they’re sitting on 86 wins, and it’s hardly a stretch from 86 wins to 90, and some years 90 gets you into the playoffs.
Greinke’s obviously not enough. The Diamondbacks need to get more from their middle infielders, and they’ll need to compensate from the natural regression from a few of their hitters who were outstanding last season. Remember, too, that last winter we were saying all sorts of nice things about the Padres, and look how that turned out. But signing Greinke is about a team that plays in a big market becoming relevant again. And Greinke signing is about a really good pitcher with a couple of really great seasons wanting whatever the market will bear.