There are many large roster decisions facing the Dodgers this offseason, but what they do with Zack Greinke remains likely the most important choice this winter.
Greinke can opt out of the remaining three years and $71 remaining on his contract and become a free agent. He hasn't yet, though that is most likely a technical formality more than anything. It is a no-brainer that he will opt out by the third day following the World Series, his deadline to do so. Unless of course the Dodgers can strike a deal with him before then.
But the plan for Greinke is to hit the open market. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports has reported that Greinke will opt out, which is the smart play because of simple economics. It will be more lucrative for Greinke to have up to 30 teams bidding on him instead of just one.
From a performance standpoint, there is no better time than for Greinke to be available. He is coming off one of the best pitching seasons in recent memory, going 19-3 with a 1.66 ERA with the Dodgers with 200 strikeouts in 222⅔ innings. He lasted at least six innings in all 32 starts, and put up 30 quality starts.
Greinke in 2016 will be entering his age-32 season, one year older than Jon Lester was last offseason when he signed with Chicago for six years, $155 million.
But there is risk in the deal. Pitchers like Greinke are quite rare, which is why they command such a high price tag, and risk is an accepted part of the deal.
After 2011, CC Sabathia was 59-23 with a 3.18 ERA, a 138 ERA+ in three years with the Yankees, averaging 235 innings and 208 strikeouts per year. He had an opt-out clause after three years of his initial seven-year, $161 million deal with New York, and utilized that leverage to add $30 million guaranteed onto the back end of the deal with one extra year plus a vesting club option.
In the four years since, Sabathia is 38-33 with a 4.35 ERA, a 93 ERA+, averaging 156 innings and 139 strikeouts per season.
Sabathia was a year younger after 2011 than Greinke is now.
With that in mind, here is a rudimentary look at the risk of signing a pitcher from age 32 to 37. Let's look at the six-year periods before and after age 32, from 1990-2015.
- 87 pitchers with 1,000 IP
- 9 with 30 WAR (Baseball-Reference version)
- 20 with 25 WAR
- 23 players with 6 seasons of 162 IP, positive WAR
- 61 players with 5 seasons of 162 IP, positive WAR
- 6 players with 6 seasons of 200 IP, positive WAR
- 17 players with 5 seasons of 200 IP, positive WAR
- 30 pitchers with 1,000 IP
- 4 with 30 WAR
- 7 with 25 WAR
- 8 players with 6 seasons of 162 IP, positive WAR
- 16 players with 5 seasons of 162 IP, positive WAR
- 1 player with 6 seasons of 200 IP, positive WAR (David Wells)
- 5 players with 5 seasons of 200 IP, positive WAR
As we said, risk comes with the territory in paying for ages 32-37. The key, it seems, is to find as many pitchers in that age 26-31 group as possible.
Then again, there is also the risk of not having Greinke or someone of his ilk at all.
The quartet of 30-WAR pitchers in this six-year age frame are Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Roger Clemens, and Kevin Brown, all basically Hall of Fame pitchers (Brown has a strong case but is destined for Veterans Committee). So a six-year deal for Greinke is a bet that he will continue a path toward Cooperstown.
Another wrinkle in Greinke's offseason is that he has plenty of competition on the pitching market. His three top competitors - David Price, Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmermann - are all heading into their age-30 seasons, two years younger than Greinke.
Let's take another look at pitchers from 1990-2015, but looking at ages 30-35.
- 47 pitchers with 1,000 IP
- 9 with 30 WAR
- 11 with 25 WAR
- 10 players with 6 seasons of 162 IP, positive WAR
- 27 players with 5 seasons of 162 IP, positive WAR
- 3 players with 6 seasons of 200 IP, positive WAR
- 10 players with 5 seasons of 200 IP, positive WAR
The takeaway here is what you might expect. In general, a pitcher is more likely to produce value from ages 30-35 than 32-37.
Of course, every pitcher is different and the Dodgers know more medically about Greinke than any other team. If there is any team built to absorb the risk of a six-year contract for a 32-year-old pitcher, it's the Dodgers. But it's also perfectly understandable for the front office to deem the risk too high.