SAN FRANCISCO — The Giants-Dodgers rivalry, one of the best in sports, has heated up over the past three years. Armed with a $300 million budget, the Dodgers have won the National League West each of the past three seasons. The Giants squeezed a title in during one of those years, their third since 2010.
It’s a terrific rivalry on the field and this offseason it might turn into a stronger one off the field. The Giants and Dodgers are going head to head for top pitching talent, starting with the player who may have been the best pitcher in baseball last season. The Dodgers are the favorite to land Zack Greinke, their co-ace who opted out of his deal after the regular season, but the Giants are viewed by many around baseball as the top contender to steal him away.
For Larry Baer, Brian Sabean and Bobby Evans, this is a chase with no downside. If the Giants are able to bring Greinke up to NorCal, they’ll have their own version of Kershaw-Greinke and Madison Bumgarner finally will have a strong running mate. If the Giants succeed only in jacking up the final price for the Dodgers, that’s still a positive. The Greinke market has been quiet during a sluggish start to the offseason. In this lull before free agency really starts to heat up, we’ll take a look at the pluses and minuses of some of the top free agents.
We start with Greinke, the 32-year-old right-hander who finished a close second to Jake Arrieta in the Cy Young voting.
PRO: If you’re going to spend upwards of $150 million on a pitcher you might as well do it on the best, and nobody was better than Greinke in 2015. Sure, Arrietta won the Cy Young Award, but from start to finish Greinke was the guy in the National League. He led the majors with a 1.66 ERA and 0.84 WHIP, allowing more than three runs in a game just twice. No, seriously, read that again — Greinke gave up more than three runs just twice in 32 starts. In nine of those starts he pitched at least seven innings without giving up a run. The whole Giants staff did that just 12 times in 2015.
If you’re looking for a real flaw in Greinke’s 2015 season ... you won’t find one. He had a 1.39 ERA before the All-Star break and a 1.99 ERA in the second half. His ERA was 1.46 at home and 1.88 on the road. He pitched 222 2/3 innings, struck out 200, walked 40 and allowed just 14 homers. He was good in the postseason, too.
The one issue for many Cy Young voters was the lack of complete games, but there are no durability concerns with Greinke, who is known for being honest with managers and pitching coaches late in games. Greinke pitched at least six innings in all 32 of his starts and got through the eighth six times. He has six 200-inning seasons since 2008. It's this track record that contributes to the sense that Greinke might be "safer" than most marquee starters who hit the market.
He is generally viewed as the available starter most likely to hold his value, and many talent evaluators believe he’s the second coming of Greg Maddux, a pitcher who will dominate even as his velocity drops off. Greinke can still crank it up to 95 mph when he needs to, but he averaged 91.8 mph the last two seasons and should continue to dominate even if he loses more steam as he gets into his late 30s. The fear with any free agent pitcher is that he falls apart late in the deal, but Greinke is as smart as any pitcher in the game, and his varied repertoire should hold up well.
CON: Greinke hasn’t missed many starts in his career, but teams surely will want to take a closer look at his pitching elbow before committing to a long-term deal. A lubricating injection was given this spring and Greinke reported some soreness in his elbow after the All-Star break in 2014, per ESPN’s Mark Saxon.
"It's come and gone for several years now," Greinke told Saxon in spring training. "It'll probably be something I have to deal with again this year, but it hasn't been a big issue, obviously. When you get older, you've got to deal with stuff so I would like to think it's not going to be an issue and I don't expect it to be, but it could."
Look, we’re talking about a pitcher. They get hurt, and even if you don’t end up undergoing Tommy John you still can lose seasons to a cranky arm. The Giants have dealt with that with Matt Cain, who was viewed as one of the more resilient starters in the game before signing his extension.
PRO: Greinke was worth 5.9 Wins Above Replacement in 2015 per FanGraphs, and the site projects him at 4.0 in 2016. The Giants finished eight games behind the Dodgers, and with this one move and better health, it's easy to see them making up the gap. If they lost Greinke the Dodgers likely would sign another ace, but still, getting this guy away from Los Angeles would be a division-shaking move.
There's more at play here than wins and losses, too. How would Dodgers fans react to such a move after watching the hated Giants hold three parades? If you’re a Dodger, how would you like to see management let someone like Greinke get away to the team you’re trying to beat? What would Kershaw think? It would be a tough blow to the organization and its fans, and short of bringing in David Price alongside Kershaw, it’s hard to see any addition that would make up for the loss of Greinke.
PRO: We’re going to double up on “pros” for a moment because it’s hard to find too many faults with Greinke's resume. Here are three more on-field benefits:
- Signing Greinke means you no longer have to face Greinke. In 10 career starts against the Giants he’s 7-0 with a 2.19 ERA.
- Signing Greinke means you get to regularly watch him pitch at AT&T Park, where he has a 1.78 ERA in four career starts.
- Signing Greinke means you get to watch him hit. Who won the NL Silver Slugger before Bumgarner took over in 2014? Greinke, who has a .220 career average and six homers. Over the last three seasons, Greinke is the only pitcher with more hits (46) than Bumgarner (42).
Throw in a 2014 Gold Glove Award and Greinke pretty much does everything you ask of your star pitcher, which is why …
CON: He’s going to get a very, very, very large contract. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports predicted $165 million over five years. MLB Trade Rumors guessed six years and $156 million. FanGraphs predicted $160 million over five years. With so many teams searching for frontline pitching, Greinke should get more than $30 million per year until he’s 37 or 38 years old.
The Giants can afford it, and they showed during the Jon Lester sweepstakes that they’ll cut a huge check if they feel it’s the right fit. But with two holes in the rotation and another in left field, they might decide their money should be spread around. Team president and CEO Larry Baer may have given a hint during a recent appearance on SportsTalk Live.
“I think the thing we always look at is there’s not a great history with that,” he said of huge deals for pitchers. “The sample size is not huge but it’s big enough. Name me a successful signing of a pitcher 30 years or older, five years plus — there aren’t a lot of them.”
PRO: Greinke certainly seems like the type of player who would instantly become a favorite for a fan base that has fully embraced guys like Tim Lincecum and Hunter Pence. He’s known for being a bit different. One of my personal favorites is the story about Greinke and Jeremy Affeldt, retold in this story titled “Greinke is a study in brutal honesty.” Then there’s this incredible anecdote from Molly Knight’s book about the Dodgers. He seems like the type of player who would fit in seamlessly in the Giants clubhouse, and it certainly appears that he already has a good thing going with manager Bruce Bochy.
PREDICTION: You mean, other than the fact that Zack Greinke is going to get a monstrous contract? This is a tough call because Greinke would be a great fit with a lot of organizations that have the deep pockets to sign him, from the Giants and Dodgers to the Cubs, Red Sox and others. There have been some whispers out of Los Angeles that the Dodgers are hesitant to sign a pitcher with this many miles on his arm, but in the end, it’s difficult to imagine that ownership group letting someone like Greinke get away, especially to the Giants.