A little over week ago, we unleashed our 2016 Midseason Plan, looking to improve a team that has underwhelmed for a wide host of reasons. The moves, in case you didn’t notice, were mostly small. Trades of Yasmany Tomas and Welington Castillo were proposed, and I guess those aren’t the smallest of transactions, but the rest of the ideas put forth were. The idea of re-tooling the Diamondbacks seemed to make the most sense as they still want to win in the very near future. Blowing things up seemed irrational, but there’s a case to be made that it’s worth at least considering. And, truth be told, we talked about trading nearly everyone, including Paul Goldschmidt. While we couldn’t find a deal that made sense for Goldy, two other names divided Ryan, Kelvin and I as we talked through the direction to take the team. While it wasn’t included, we have to wonder what it would take to deal Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller.
A Question of Value
With Zack Greinke’s acquisition, Arizona proclaimed their eagerness to join the fray of competitive baseball teams. A six-year, $206.5 million deal that’s back-loaded with deferred payments creates a unique contract situation. Additionally, Greinke has a limited no-trade clause built into his deal that allows him to block trades to 15 teams, and if traded, he receives a $2 million bonus for his troubles. We don’t know which teams are on that no-trade list, but you start to get the feeling that any kind of deal to move Greinke would be a difficult proposition.
Adding to the degree of difficulty is trying to figure out what the D-backs would get in return. There’s so much money associated with Greinke that he’s surely no bargain. Of course, getting a pitcher of his caliber puts a premium on the opportunity for an acquiring team, but there aren’t many teams out there that’ll be excited about paying $35 million to a 37-year old pitcher. Using some simple estimates and accounting for inflation, we can check and see if there’s any surplus value to be had here.
Zack Greinke is 32 and not getting any younger. With plenty of mileage on his arm, we’d expect to see him slowly decline as he ages. If you assume that a win was valued at $6.5 million this winter, that 5% inflation will occur yearly and that Greinke will follow the standard age curve, here’s where we arrive:
With all figures in millions, it’s easy to see that Greinke falls well short of the money owed to him. There’s a chance he finds lightening in a bottle like he did last year, but there’s a chance he gets hurt for a very significant portion of time, too. Shooting for the middle, this basic calculation says he’s owed $66 million more than he’s worth.
But what if we think Greinke will age better than the average player? He has pitched very well in his early 30’s, and given that he doesn’t rely on elite velocity to get the job done, maybe his ability holds up better over time. Let’s improve his age curve and make the drop off less extreme from year to year. Where does that leave us?
Using this estimate, we see Greinke as a 3+ win pitcher well into his mid-30’s, something that’s pretty uncommon. This creates and additional two wins of production and helps bring down the loss of cash to $52 million, but that’s still a ton of money to swallow.
As we’ve seen, contracts in baseball are getting bigger all the time, thanks in large part to television contracts. That bubble hasn’t burst yet, and maybe it never does. If deals keep getting re-worked, maybe salary inflation is greater than 5% over the coming years. If that’s the case, and Grienke pitches well, we have yet another scenario:
If we jump inflation to 8% and give Greinke the benefit of the doubt when it comes to aging, we lower the losses again, this time to $43 million. It should make one uncomfortable to err in both categories and still lose what would equate to nearly 40% of a year’s payroll for the team.
No matter how we slice it, there’s just no way Greinke produces $206.5 million in value without another monster, MVP caliber season or two. While he’s pitched very well post-April, he’s 32 and on the DL now with back issues. 33 when the 2017 season opens, it’s awfully difficult to see 7, 8 or 9-win seasons in his future. That’s not to say he can’t do it, but rather to admit how unlikely that scenario is.
Every other team in baseball can only plan for the most likely of outcomes and cannot peg their budgets to wishful thinking, making it difficult to envision a scenario in which the Diamondbacks can get out from under Greinke’s deal and obtain anything useful in return. Their best option to get impactful prospects back for Grienke would likely require Arizona to take a bloated, albeit less-bloated, contract back in return. That would help offset the expected value lost by the acquiring team.
It’s been noted by Ken Rosenthal and others that the Red Sox would like to add pitching, and before scooping up Drew Pomeranz, that appeared to be a viable option. But even Boston’s large market budget would likely have issues in paying David Price and Zack Greinke through their 30’s. Pomeranz is a surplus value opportunity for Boston and netted San Diego Anderson Espinosa, one of the game’s best young arm. Greinke would cost Boston value in this scenario, limiting the return significantly. Any move to deal Arizona’s ace would require some kind of bad contract swap or become a straight salary dump. Considering the Diamondbacks’ biggest need is pitching, this doesn’t make a lot of sense for the organization since they’d still need to fill Greinke’s shoes with someone just as talented to continue try and contend in 2017.
A Question of Pride
Shelby Miller was sent to AAA Reno following the All-Star break, and to be honest, he sounded relieved to be taken out of the MLB spotlight. “I’ve been struggling up here for a while,” Miller said in the Arizona clubhouse Thursday. “I’m surprised I stayed up here this long.” It’s been an uncomfortable ride for him all season long and rumors have started to swirl about his health, mechanics and who’s to blame for all that’s gone wrong. Speculation aside, one would think that the D-backs are stuck with Miller, but that’s apparently not the case.
— Today’s Knuckleball (@KnuckleballFRS) July 18, 2016
Two teams in the thick of the wild card race, Los Angeles and Miami view Miller as a buy-low candidate and have made overtures to check on Miller’s availability. While we can’t speak to Arizona’s asking price, everyone can be had if the price is right. It’s just that it’s highly likely that the D-backs still value Miller more highly than what contending teams would be willing to spend, making a potential trade seem highly unlikely.
Adding to the equation is the PR nightmare that would immediately ensue. The Diamondbacks traded Ender Inciarte, Aaron Blair and Dansby Swanson to Atlanta to get Miller this winter and they’d surely receive far, far less for the right-hander if they dealt him now. While Inciarte has been hurt for a chunk of the season, Aaron Blair struggled in his first 11 starts before being sent to AAA, and Swanson is still regarded as good but not great prospect, moving Miller for a substantially smaller return would be seen as the Diamondbacks’ front office admitting failure. Players are fungible assets and it’s not the case that all trades represent mistakes, but this would look no other way for Arizona, a team that’s had issues valuing players properly under Kevin Towers and now the Tony LaRussa/Dave Stewart regime.
Miller is arbitration-eligible for two more seasons, and though he earned $4.4 million in his first trip through arb this winter, he’ll likely have to settle for a similar salary in 2017 after his campaign this season, limiting his 2018 salary in the process no matter how well he pitches next season. He should cost the D-backs something in the neighborhood of $12 million through 2018, making him a tremendous value if he gets back on track and a relatively easy cost to swallow if he doesn’t. Should he pitch like a 2-win pitcher for 2017 and 2018, he’ll have surplus value north of $13 million. It’s hard to envision the Diamondbacks getting that kind of value from any prospect they take in return for Miller at this point, selling short on top of the sunk costs already paid. Their best is bet is to try to get Miller ironed out and hope for some kind of rebound, even if it’s just getting him to be a reliable back-end starter.
You Don’t Always Get What You Pay For
Pitchers are always risky given their injury risk and just how fragile their success is. The team paid a premium for Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller, they just did it in different ways. While Greinke has worked out to some degree, there’s almost no way he earns every dollar paid to him. Miller’s struggles have been well-documented, and although the D-backs paid more than they should have the first time around, they’d do worse to sell-low and compound the issue. Turning Inciarte, Blair and Swanson into a mediocre AA prospect doesn’t make business sense and would look unimaginably bad for the organization. The situation is was costly by design and the team isn’t about to turn that around any time soon.
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