Quality pitchers at overpriced premium

In weak class of pitching free agents, Greinke figures to net big money despite underwhelming numbers

Baseball analysts don't agree on a lot. But for months just about everyone has said that this class of free agents is weak, and that Zack Greinke is the best guy in it.

In other words, it's a great time to be Greinke.

But how about the team that signs Greinke? Is this a great time to spend top-of-the-market money on the best pitcher available?

From all indications, someone — probably the Dodgers, given baseball's new pecking order — is going to give Greinke one of the biggest contracts ever for a pitcher, maybe even the biggest. The Nationals, Angels and Rangers also are chasing Greinke, so it's possible the deal will top the seven years, $161 million the Yankees gave CC Sabathia four years ago.

Look for the splash to be made this week, when teams and reporters gather in Nashville, Tenn., for the winter meetings. But it should surprise no one if the signing turns out to be more of a cannonball than a stylish, world-class dive.

The rush to sign Greinke, and the prices being discussed, are about a few things: The potential he flashed as a 20-year-old on a 104-loss Royals team, when he made 24 starts and held the American League to a 3.97 earned-run average; the Cy Young season he had in 2009, when his WAR was an eye-popping 10.1, and a fastball that, according to Fangraphs, still averages 92.3 (although it has dropped from 93.7 when he won the Cy Young.)

Greinke turned 29 in October, sitting out the playoffs like the two teams he failed to carry there (the Angels and post-Prince Fielder Brewers), yet when he signs you will hear the Dodgers' Ned Colletti or another general manager talk about how he's only now coming into his own. They will say he can be better the next five years than he was the last five — and for the deal that Greinke can get, he better be.

The only problem is that unless you're Greg Maddux going to the Braves at age 27, baseball doesn't work that way. Maddux had won his first Cy Young the year he reached free agency, yet somehow he was under-rated. Greinke seems over-rated by traditional and modern analytical breakdowns.

He's 91-78 with a 3.77 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings over 1,492 career innings. Yet somehow he's a buzz guy and the highly skilled Mark Buehrle never was. When Buehrle was at Greinke's current level of big-league service, he was a year older (entering his age-30 season) and had gone 122-87 with a 3.31 ERA, a 1.27 WHIP and 5.3 strikeouts per nine innings over 1,8472/3 innings.

Buehrle was one year into a four-year, $56-million deal with the White Sox, and few Chicago fans blinked when the team allowed him to jump to the Marlins three years later. You better believe that had a lot to do with a fastball that had decreased from 90-91 to 85-86.

And Sabathia himself? The over-sized left-hander had gone 117-73 with a 3.66 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings over 1,6591/3 innings when he was at the same point in his career that Greinke is now.

In terms of WAR, Greinke has produced only 28.1 for his career (including that 10.1 in 2009). At this point in their careers, Buehrle had generated 33.6; Sabathia, surprisingly, only 27.3.

While Greinke has thrown 202-plus innings in four of the last five years, he hasn't been as much of a workhorse as Buehrle or Sabathia. Does that mean he has more left in the tank?

Someone is going to say that, for sure. But consider that at the point in their careers where Greinke is now, both Sabathia and Buehrle declined in WAR over a four-year period compared to their totals in the previous four years (Buehrle, from 16.6 to 15.3; Sabathia, from 15.3 to 13.3).

Sabathia pretty much justified his Yankee deal when he and Alex Rodriguez carried the 2009 Yankees to the championship they had chased since Game 7 in 2001. The mandate for Greinke is to do that for his new team next year, as these windows close quickly. The nine-figure contract and oversized headlines won't help him, unfortunately.

Layaway plan: Given the Twins' need to improve a rotation that ranked last in the American League with a 5.40 ERA, many of their fans were underwhelmed with the return they received when they traded center fielder Denard Span to the Nationals. But executives with other teams were impressed that general manager Terry Ryan landed 21-year-old right-hander Alex Meyer, who has No. 1 starter potential.

"This guy, even though he has been in pro ball a short time, has first-round status," Ryan told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "He's out of the University of Kentucky, highly touted. These guys are hard to get, and if you are going to get them, it's going to be in the low to mid-minors. Once they get up to Double A or Triple A, they are almost impossible to get."

Span will be a good fit in center for the Nationals, who have pursued him for more than a year. He's a .284 career hitter who controls the strike zone and runs well.

"His skill set is something we were looking for, we have been looking for a couple years," Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said. "We're talking about a true defensive ball hawk, center field type of guy with great range. He's the consummate leadoff type of hitter. He appeals greatly to us for his skill set as an offensive player."

Role model: Fearing that Marvin Miller wouldn't be around much longer, Scott Boras made it a point to spend some time with him. The super agent went to New York for an audience with the labor leader last March, and wasn't too proud to take some notes.

CHICAGO