Seven Years of Greinke

The Cliff Lee extravaganza has pushed the whole MLB offseason into a swirling news storm. Every day is full of ideas about where he’s going, who’s talked to his agent, and who hasn’t talked to his agent but later does. Even Carl Crawford, who will be a useful everyday player for a team over the next several years, isn’t garnering the attention that Lee is. Some have used this to call Cliff Lee the Brett Favre of the baseball world. And they may be right.

One contract that’s been reported has been a little more extreme than the others. While news of the Yankees offering six years surfaced a few days ago, it’s now apparent that at least two teams could be offering seven-year contracts. Seven years. Some recent contracts, like those of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, have been as long as nine years, but those players were in their primes at the contracts’ outsets. Cliff Lee is a 32-year-old pitcher who only started to truly settle in as a great a few years ago, leading to his Cy Young victory. Don’t get me wrong, he had great potential before that, but he also had many problems.

So, where am I going with this? Well, the Royals have their own former Cy Young-winning pitcher who will be looking for a new contract within the next two years. Like Lee, he has a tumultuous past, though for other reasons. And like Lee, he’s one of the most sought-after players in baseball this offseason.

With Cliff Lee reportedly being offered seven-year contracts, I started thinking about giving Zack Greinke a seven-year contract of his own, and whether this is a good idea.

Cliff Lee is an incredible pitcher. He’s compiled some stats that are in their own world. He’s done this for great teams (Phillies, Rangers) and bad teams (Indians, Mariners). No matter what team Lee’s played for the last couple years, he’s been lights-out and consistently one of the best, if not the absolute best, pitchers in the league.

It wasn’t always that way. He was a solid pitcher from 2002 to 2006, which earned him an extension through 2009. However, his 2007 season, at 28, was mired by injury and character questions. Lee often overthrew and allowed his temper to get the best of him, and this got him into trouble with other teams as well as his own team. It’s clear that there were questions about his past.

Something changed before 2008, however, when Lee dropped a bit of velocity and added nuance and finesse to his pitching style. The result was a great Cy Young season when he went 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA and a K/BB of 5.00. He had great talent before, but this was when his value truly became apparent.

We all know the story from there – 2.13 ERA in the postseason with a 10.00 K/BB, including this past postseason. He became a mercenary of sorts, and is now looking for a long stay somewhere.

Many teams are happy to oblige.

It’s debatable whether such a player deserves a seven-year contract. He’s great, yes, but signing a 32-year-old pitcher nearly through his 40-year-old season will be questionable no matter who the pitcher is. Lee is amazing now, but for all we know he could fall apart in three years and be multi-million-dollar dead weight for the rest of his contract. That can be said about anyone, but making a long-term commitment to a player nearing his mid-30s isn’t something I’d want the Royals to necessarily do.*

*Of course, if that player meant so much to the team, like Mauer does to the Twins or Pujols does to the Cardinals, that letting him leave would be a tragedy, I might feel differently.

Now we turn to Zack Greinke. Zack is five years younger than Cliff Lee and is signed for the next two years. No matter what team he is ultimately traded to, Zack’s contract will someday end. He’s been as good as Lee, and arguably better in some areas, over the last 2-3 years, which is why he’s the second-most sought-after pitcher this offseason.

Zack’s history is somewhat like Lee’s. As almost any baseball fan knows at this point, he had severe anxiety issues early in his career, which eventually derailed him in 2006. Before this, Zack had made appearances with the Royals starting as a 20-year-old in 2004. In the first two years, he started 57 games and led the league in losses in 2005 (with 17). From 2006-2007, Zack split his time between the bullpen and starting rotation, eventually becoming a full-time starter in 2008. This was the beginning of the total emergence.

Though it always seemed to me like Zack gave up a lot of home runs, he was reasonably solid and managed to keep his walk rate low while increasing his strikeout rate. His slider became a weapon of mass destruction and hitters started to look silly. Then came the legendary 2009 season.

Zack’s 2009 season was arguably better than Lee’s Cy Young 2008 season. His ERA (2.16) and FIP (2.33) were both lower than Lee’s had been and his strikeout rate was higher. Lee had a better walk rate, but Zack led most categories while simultaneously igniting the Royals’ fan base with honor for the first time in several years. He was truly hitting a higher gear.

In 2010, we realized just how much Zack seemed bored by the losing efforts of his teammates. Of course, that 2009 season would be difficult to repeat, but the seeming boredom and frustration led Zack to mess around with his pitches a bit more.* It became clear that Zack wanted to pitch for a winner and rumors began to mount about how long he would remain in Kansas City.

*Of course, this is all just theorizing on my part, but I think several other people share that view based on Zack’s behavior this past season.

Well, here we are. I can almost assure he’ll be traded soon (by tomorrow?) and can also guarantee there’ll be a flow of outrage from many fans. We can only hope for a good return. From there, well, Zack will likely be getting a solid contract after his current one ends in 2012. My question is whether Zack would deserve a contract as long as seven years. I don’t want to think about if he will get such a contract, but rather whether his production so far warrants a long-term contract.

The first point is obviously that Zack is five years younger and has achieved much of the regular season success that Cliff Lee has in his career. Granted, Lee also has the postseason success (though the World Series was a little rough), but we can only judge Zack on what he’s done so far.

The question becomes whether you give a seven-year contract to a (will-be) 29-year-old pitcher that has won one Cy Young and had several other seasons as one of the top pitchers in the league. It’s hard to determine without knowing where he’s about to go, but if Cliff Lee, who has higher career ERA and FIP than Zack and is 32 at his contract signing, can get a seven-year contract, then why not Zack?

It seems obvious that Zack’s performance would qualify for the same reward as Lee. If he continues his production over the next two seasons or even improves some, a contract of at least 5 or 6 years would be a necessity. Without question, Zack’s performance suggests that having a long-term home would be the best bet for him.

However, there are other elements here. Zack is as Zack does, and he’s known to be fairly vocal regarding his feelings about his position at this point. Along with that, Zack’s past anxiety issues are a matter of concern for many people and he seems like the type of player that would just decide one season that he was done playing. It could be when he’s 42 or it could be at 34, but he has the will to find what he wants.

As far as I know, Lee’s temper flares are behind him and he’s a much more controlled pitcher at this point. On the other hand, there seems to be a lot more questions about Zack’s ability to pitch in pressure environments like New York or the postseason. These questions would frame the contract negotiations based on current feelings, though those ideas might change given two more years of strong pitching.

Does Zack deserve a contract like Cliff Lee’s potential seven-year deal? I would have to say he does. He’s a great pitcher, like Lee, and could single-handedly improve any team in baseball right now. He’s younger than Lee and has experience playing for a team with several rough edges, which is something that doesn’t get much notice.

If other teams would offer him a seven-year contract depends on two factors: the free agent market and their own feelings about his anxiety or comfort. If Zack were a free agent this offseason, I can almost guarantee that teams wouldn’t offer him the contract that Lee is getting. Most of that would be based on his lack of postseason experience and “playing for a winner.”* In two years, the free agent market will be different and the anxiety will be deeper in the past, potentially providing teams with fewer reasons to not offer Zack a long contract.

*I’ll add that this argument is moronic. See: Hernandez, Felix.

Really, I just think teams don’t hold Zack with the same high regard as Cliff Lee is held at this point. Lee has done something I would hate in pitching as a mercenary for two years. Zack has had the comfort of one team. He’s from a small market and hasn’t been on the big stage of the postseason. If he gets that experience in the next two years, though, they might change their ways.

In the end, I would give Zack a six- or seven-year contract. I think his performance and desire to win prompt that decision. But, then again, I may be biased.

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