Matt Cain, Zack Greinke, and Cole Hamels: The Final Chapter

Harry How

At one point, there were three nearly identical 20-something pitchers looking to cash in after the 2012 season. How did they fare?

Back before the 2012 season started, Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, and Matt Cain were a fascinating trio of pending free agents. Here's a note on their similarities before the season, and here's another update that was added after the Cain extension. Let's add another season to their total numbers since 2008:

Zack Greinke: 1035 innings, 3.39 ERA, 123 ERA+, 160 starts
Cole Hamels: 1061 innings, 3.24 ERA, 126 ERA+ , 160 starts
Matt Cain: 1099 innings, 3.09 ERA, 126 ERA+, 165 starts

Greinke and Hamels were born in 1983; Cain was born in 1984. After adjusting for park and league, the three pitchers are eerily similar. They've all stayed healthy, and they've all stayed effective. And they were all scheduled to be free agents after the season. It was just a matter of seeing which one of them would set the market.

Now that they've all signed big deals, here are the remaining contracts for each pitcher:

Greinke: six years, $147 million, potential to opt out after three years
Hamels: six years, $144 million, with an option for a seventh year
Cain: five years, $112.5 million, with an option for a sixth year

It used to be funny when players would negotiate for opt-out clauses in the middle of absurd deals. Then Alex Rodriguez parlayed his into an unbelievable new contract. Then CC Sabathia did the same. Even Rafael Soriano thought it was a good idea to use his. Maybe the Yankees should stop giving those out. But it's a big win for Greinke, who can use the opt-out clause to guarantee a bigger payday into his late 30s if everything goes well.

Hamels got the same deal as Greinke, essentially, but on the off-chance that he's still an elite pitcher in 2018, the Phillies will have the option to retain him.

And then there's Matt Cain, who ended up with something that's probably going to be as close to Anibal Sanchez as to Greinke. No one was trumpeting his deal as a coup when it was signed, but it is certainly a much different contract than the one Greinke signed. The impulse is to suggest the open market is responsible for the difference, but that wouldn't explain Hamels. The Phillies ended up paying market price for their own player.

The difference was a matter of months. Cain's extension was April. Hamels' was July, and Greinke just signed his deal.

What happened? Did the Giants hoodwink Cain and his agent? Hardly. At the time, it was looked like every other long-term deal for a pitcher: lotsa money, lotsa years, pitchers usually don't age well. The usual caveats. Dave Cameron didn't like the deal, for example. And it still might be a disaster, to be sure. But Cain likely would have made a lot more on the open market this offseason.

My guess at to what happened, in the form of a timeline:

March: Dodgers sold to a group led by Guggenheim Capital
April: Matt Cain signs five-year extension
June: Dodgers sign Andre Ethier and Yasiel Puig for a combined $147 million
June: The rest of baseball says, "Wait a second ..."
July: Cole Hamels's agent wears a Magic Johnson jersey to in-person negotiations with the Phillies. The deal is finalized that day.

The difference between the three contracts is that the first one was made in the previous era. The Yankees were scaling back, the Red Sox were mostly tapped out, and the Dodgers were bankrupt. The big players on the scene were the Marlins. The Marlins! They were the scary bogeyman for teams hoping to keep their homegrown talent, but even at the time, there wasn't a sense that they'd go full Yankees. They had their limits.

The Dodgers were supposed to spend, but no one expected them to spend that much:

Fears might be spiking after the Los Angeles Dodgers were sold Tuesday for a record 2.15 billion, and new owner Magic Johnson pledged to be aggressive in courting top free-agent talent.(Giants CEO Larry) Baer said he didn't expect the Dodgers sale would have a major impact on the free-agent market next winter.

Now there's a team that doesn't have limits, and even before the Crawford/Gonzalez trade, the Dodgers were already announcing they were far from finished with their spending. The new price for top-tier starting pitchers is different in December than it was in March. The difference is that now there's a team that just doesn't give a damn.

Call it the Yasiel Puig Line. Before that, the Dodgers were just a team looking to spend. After that, they were a team that wasn't looking to stop. The MLBPA is sending over a fruit basket to Chavez Ravine as we speak.

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