The Chicago Cubs could be aggressive shoppers in the free agent market this offseason, so it’s worth taking a look at some of the players who could be of potential interest to the team. These players present possible fits for the Cubs, at a range of potential costs and talent levels.
Performance in 2015
Hello, welcome to the 2015 MLB season. If you weren’t aware, Zack Greinke was pretty good. So good, in fact, that he is one of the three favorites to win the NL Cy Young award, along with – and arguably just behind – Jake Arrieta and Clayton Kershaw. The reason Greinke probably falls behind those two is multi-faceted and based on more than just his traditional statistics, but that’s a conversation for another time. What Greinke lacked in Cy Young caliber advanced statistics, though, he made up for in traditional numbers. His ERA was stellar (1.66), he struck batters out (23.7%) and he refrained from giving up too many free passes (4.7%).
(As a brief aside, the four pitchers so far in this series have shared a pretty common theme of impressively low walk rates. While that is undoubtedly tied to the fact that they are just plain good, I thought it was a pretty interesting trend.)
He threw an large number of innings (222.2) and remained healthy throughout the year – his age 31 season, though he is now 32 years old. Although Greinke was certainly very, very good in 2015, there are a few pretty obvious reasons why he was exceptional (and why his FIP and xFIP, while still good, landed a good bit away from his ERA). For one example, his HR/FB in 2015 (7.3%) was lower than his career norms. Over the four previous seasons (2011-2014) for example, his average HR/FB rate was quite a bit higher at 11.0%. For another example, his BABIP in 2015 (.229) was much lower than his BABIP over that same stretch (.303). While he was generating more soft contact in 2015, he did give up a bit more hard contact, as well.
Alternatively, Greinke’s groundball rate in 2015 (48%) was quite impressive and actually is right in line with where he’s been over the past several seasons. So, while there was some luck sprinkled into his 2015 season, Greinke, overall, was a pretty fantastic pitcher (I know. I’m really going out on a limb).
Performance before 2015
While Greinke has always been a pretty fantastic pitcher (2009 AL Cy Young Award Winner), 2015 was probably one of his best seasons, overall. Before this season, his career ERA was 3.55, career FIP was 3.38, career groundball rate was 43.0%, career K% was 21.7% and career BB% was 6.0%. However, it’s hard to fault a guy for slowly progressing as his career went on, and it’s not like those numbers are ghastly or even too far from his performance in 2015.
The questions you need to ask for a pitcher around his age, though, include: Have there been any changes in velocity? And, if so, how has he adapted to those changes? The answers to those questions, you’ll find, are pretty surprising.
Starting in 2007, Greinke’s fastball velocity was 94.4 MPH. From that point on, over the following 6 years, his fastball slowly decreased falling to a minimum of 91.7 MPH in 2013 – where it has stayed for the last three seasons. What’s surprising, then, is how early on Greinke began to lose velocity on his fastball and how, once it settled around that 91.7 MPH, he was able to keep at that level thereafter. Perhaps it was a conscious decision, perhaps it was unintentional, but what’s most important is how he managed to perform thereafter.
Over the three seasons that his fastball has been at its lowest (2013-2015), Greinke has been quite good. Over that stretch his FIP (2.97) has been very strong, his walks remained in control (5.4%) and, perhaps most importantly, his strikeout rate remained solid (23.3%). His LOB% during that stretch (82.1%) was quite a bit higher than his career before (72.5%), but that is at least a little bit expected as his strikeout rate is better than it was, too (career 21.4% before 2013). His FIP before 2013 was 3.45. Greinke appears to have aged gracefully and adapted to his lower fastball velocity quite well. In fact, it downright suits him.
Projection for 2016 and Beyond
Normally, you wouldn’t like to project too much more from a 32-year-old starting pitcher coming off one of the best seasons of his career, but I’m not so sure 2016 will be much of a disappointment. Now, of course, his ERA will not touch 1.66 again, but that was fluky to begin with. With relatively strong peripherals all around, Greinke will probably be pretty great, once again.
Frankly, I’m more interested now than I was when I started this article, given the success he’s found with a much lower velocity. Remember, he is not just as good as he was before the drop off in velocity, he’s been better. Health and velocity are the “death and taxes” of aging starting pitchers, but some don’t have to face the music as soon as others. Greinke might be one of those guys.
Steamer pegs him for a 3.02 ERA (3.26 FIP) over 206.0 innings in 2016. That’s fantastic, but I suppose it’s the years after 2016 that people are worried about the most.
Possible Contract/Existing Rumors
As we found out on Wednesday, Zack Greinke opted out of his contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, officially becoming a free agent for 2016. While it was mostly expected to happen, that is still vital information because it gives us an absolute bedrock minimum for what Greinke expects (3 years/$71M).
While he will certainly get both more years and dollars than that, precisely how much isn’t as easy to peg. Greinke is and has been an elite pitcher for a long time, but he will soon enter the twilight of his career. The FanGraphs Crowdsourcing project pegged him for $156M over six years and Brett mostly agrees. Personally, I think that is one/two years more than I’d ideally offer him, which, unfortunately, probably makes it pretty accurate. Free agency works that way.
The conversation with Greinke most likely starts with $25M AAV (especially given that he opted out of $23.6M/year) and five years. From there, I suppose I can see a team giving him the extra year, with the deal ultimately reaching $150M.
As of now, the Dodgers actually remain a favorite to retain Greinke. They have deep pockets – the opt out incidentally just saved $71M – a need and a familiarity with the pitcher. If Los Angeles is where Greinke wants to be, that is where he’ll end up, and the money will be there.
There have been stories that Greinke has had anxiety issues in the past – indeed, he was put on the 60-day disabled list in 2006 for related reasons – but that seems far behind him at this point. One common misconception, though, is that because he’s played in Los Angeles, and has not shared any public concerns over his mental health, his anxiety must be gone. The kind of anxiety that requires treatment doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as it might to you, so I think we should avoid making any kind of sweeping conclusions or generalizations. And, let’s be honest for a second: while playing professional baseball in LA might sound more demanding than Kansas City, it’s not as though every market doesn’t share the spotlight at one point or another. All that said, it does appear, thankfully, that Greinke has been able to coexist/overcome whatever he was dealing with early on in his career, and I don’t believe it is an issue you need to consider when deciding whether or not you want Greinke. I just thought it was worth mentioning.
Also worth mentioning, but not necessarily a reason for concern: the annual injection Greinke has received in each of the last three seasons. Apparently, before each of three seasons he’s spent with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Greinke has received a lubricating injection in his pitching elbow, preventing him from throwing for just a few days, each time. Obviously, that isn’t the most heralding news, but without more details on why he needs the injections or how invasive they might be (the return time doesn’t sound too bad), then it’s a bit difficult to determine how much his new team should be concerned.
Other than that, though, there haven’t been too many concerns. He began the 2011 season on the disabled list with the Brewers, after fracturing a rib while playing basketball, but he did go on to throw 171.2 innings that year. In 2012, he once again threw over 200 innings (212.1 to be exact). In April 2013, Greinke fractured his left collarbone in a fight with Carlos Quentin and had to get surgery on April 13. He did, however, make it back to the majors by May 15 and went on to pitch 177.2 innings that year. He surpassed the 200 inning threshold in both 2014 (202.1) and 2015 (222.1) and is healthy and ready to go for 2016.
Fit For Cubs
I’m split on how to present this section to you, mostly because of what I discovered performing this exercise. I was fully prepared to, before I started writing, acknowledge Greinke’s success, but ultimately dissuade you from hoping the Cubs sign him for 2016 for age and contractual reasons. But now, mostly because of the velocity revelation, I am bit more on the fence.
Not only has Greinke found success pitching at a much lower velocity than he did early in his career, he’s found a good deal of success for three straight seasons. This indicates that he has a completely different, but clearly proven strategy that works for both him and his arsenal. Moreover, it’s not as though he was pitching at 96-98 MPH before, but now has to adjust to a still high 93-95MPH. Instead, Greinke has figured out how to be successful at a relatively mediocre 90-92 MPH, which means, in effect, he isn’t relying on his fastball velocity at all. And while they are two completely different pitchers, you’ll note that Jon Lester routinely works in the 91-93 MPH range with his fastball, as well. When targeting aging starting pitchers then, it’s not hard to imagine that this front office finds value in guys that have already made a career at lower velocities – it leaves less up to projection/chance.
All that said, Greinke is 32 years old and will require upwards of $150M dollars. In another offseason, with fewer options on the table, maybe Greinke makes more sense for a Cubs team that figures to be going for it right now. As it stands, there might be a better use of that money. Although, I have to say that at some point, the Cubs are going to start entertaining decisions that sacrifice the future for the extra bump it gives the team now. Whether or not those choices begin with Zack Greinke remains to be seen, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a chance.