Before the double-secret-probation trade deadline, the Los Angeles Dodgers apparently checked in on Zack Greinke. They were probably willing to pay the high price of just-give-him-to-us, which didn’t excite the Arizona Diamondbacks, apparently. It’s possible there were prospects involved in the brief discussions, but the message was clear: The Diamondbacks still believed that Greinke was an important part of the franchise’s plans, and they weren’t selling.
The Dodgers wanted Greinke because they could afford him. The Diamondbacks wanted to keep him because they believed they would contend with him, and they had $157.5 million worth of confidence in this belief. That would seem to make it a simple story. Baseball Team Wants To Keep Good Baseball Player isn’t much of a headline.
Except there are two wrinkles: The first is that Greinke isn’t having a great season, his 106 ERA+ somewhere between Jeremy Hellickson and Brandon Finnegan. The second is that the Diamondbacks are terrible, absolutely terrible. The team risked everything they had to contend, and they’re 21 games under .500. Their collective ERA is 5.12, which would be the highest in team history. That's worse than when they lost 111 games in 2004. Worse than when they were an expansion team that had to make do with whatever was in the hat the rest of the league passed around.
They spent hundreds of millions and traded their best prospects to have a good pitching staff this year, remember.
They have a chance to hit reset, though. The Dodgers inquired about Greinke because they still think he can help. His stellar June would give anyone hope (4-0, 1.63 ERA, outstanding K/BB numbers), and his overall season numbers aren’t bad at all. His second-half numbers were ruined by a disastrous start against the Boston Red Sox (nine runs allowed in 1⅔ innings), but he’s still probably somewhere between his Cy Young-contending season and whatever is happening this year. The Diamondbacks could be free of his contract if they wanted.
Should the Diamondbacks want to be free of Greinke’s contract? The arguments for and against:
The argument for keeping Greinke
I cannot fathom how the Diamondbacks are this bad, for one. I can see the numbers. The adjusted OPS is bad; the adjusted ERA is worse. They aren’t scoring enough runs, and they certainly aren’t preventing them, either. But they still have so much talent.
Paul Goldschmidt is one of the best players in baseball. A.J. Pollock being out for most of the year killed them, but he’ll be back next year. Jean Segura’s renaissance is inspiring. Jake Lamb’s second half has been ghastly, but he’s still a young slugger with a present and a future. Half of the starting lineup is under 30, under contract and has a bright future. And that’s before you get to Welington Castillo, who is more than adequate behind the plate, and Yasmany Tomas, who plays the outfield like he’s wearing typewriters on his feet, but can still hit 40 homers one of these years.
What do the Diamondbacks need? A shortstop who can hit, maybe, but those are out there. Ian Desmond is on the market this winter, and he shouldn’t be prohibitively expensive. Or, if the Diamondbacks want to save their money, maybe they can trade for Zack Cozart, who was Nick Ahmed at the start of the first issue. Maybe they’ll be fine with Chris Owings long term.
Maybe they need a left fielder, or maybe they don’t, depending on how Brandon Drury develops. This could be an offense that scores 800 runs without a lot of moves.
And if that happens, they’ll need pitching. Which they absolutely can’t find on the open market. Even if they wanted to throw money on top of the Greinke contract, there’s no one to do it with this offseason. They already took their shot at a whopper of a trade, and you can still smell the sulfur. This offseason’s trade market will be even more unforgiving, so nuts to that.
It sounds ominous, but the Diamondbacks still should have hope with their (mostly) young rotation, too. Shelby Miller looks like his mechanical issues are on the mend. Robbie Ray is underrated. Archie Bradley hasn’t done much yet, but he’s still a top-100 arm. Patrick Corbin is having a lost season, but he’s still young and talented, the kind of pitcher you give two more shots, not just one. Out of the ashes of the worst pitching season in franchise history, a nice rotation could emerge.
And when it does -- when all of this latent talent coalesces like it should, forming a healthy, solid core -- they’ll want an ace. The only one they can get is the one they already have.
TL;DR if the Diamondbacks are all good instead of bad, they’ll want this other good player.
The argument against keeping Greinke
I guess when you put it like that, it seems like a stretch. The argument against Greinke goes like this:
- There’s a chance that this is who Greinke is now, considering he’ll be 33 next year. A nice, control-minded pitcher who is probably the wrong fit for Chase Field, especially in this new, weird, homer-friendly league.
- Greinke is still desirable in this market, where Rich Hill is probably going to get $50 million and Edinson Volquez will have a line around the block. In a year, that won’t be the case.
- This is kind of the only big contract the Diamondbacks can handle, especially if they want to keep Pollock and Goldschmidt around after their current deals. They can’t be wrong about this.
Here’s a thought experiment for you. Pretend the Diamondbacks were having this kind of season without Greinke. Dozens of games under .500. Young, talented players, but not enough of them. A pitching staff that’s young enough to be optimistic about, but you have to squint to get there.
Would this be the kind of team that you would think should sign a previously excellent 33-year-old pitcher with an ERA in the 4.00s to a $160 million contract?
I started this article with a thesis of "Yes, the Diamondbacks should keep Greinke because of the young talent and paucity of starting pitching," but now I’m not so sure. The team’s case that they can contend in 2017 is filled with ifs stacked upon ifs, similar to a five-run ninth-inning comeback. You always know that if a team gets four singles and a homer, they can tie the game, yet you never see it happening. Maybe the odds of Miller, et al improving are slightly better than five-run rally, but the exponential difficulty of everything getting better at the same time still applies.
If the Diamondbacks could get one majors-ready starting pitcher back for Greinke, then that’s the compromise I’ve brokered in my mind. We’re not talking about Julio Urias in the Dodgers scenario. Someone more like Ross Stripling, to pull a name out of a hat. A pitcher who will help the Diamondbacks contend if that best-case scenario up there actually happens, if Ray/Corbin/Bradley turn a corner at the same time. A pitcher who will limit the chances that the team says "Whoooops" when they contend, like the Minnesota Twins did after trading Johan Santana.
Maybe there isn’t a perfect pitcher to fit that scenario. But combine competence with salary relief, and that’s what the Diamondbacks should hope for. Make the soft pitcher market work for them, and shake the Etch-a-Sketch. Start over. If they find themselves in need of an ace next July, reassess.
For now, though, it seems like they have something that other teams would want, and that’s a window that will close really, really fast one of these days. Maybe by next April. I’m not sure how much salary the Diamondbacks would need to eat, if any, and that might be the sticking point. If they have the chance to start over and look for a new ace, while saving scores and scores of millions, they should consider it. They’re not that far from contending, but they aren’t nearly close enough to ignore this rare opportunity to reset.