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Braves Potential Free Agent Target: Zack Greinke

Could the catalyst for the solidification of the 2022 Braves starting rotation come in the form of a future Hall of Fame pitcher?

Houston Astros v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Last season, the Braves had eight pitchers start at least eight games with 11 pitchers starting at least two games. Of those starts, only the four by Jesse Chavez were relief pitchers serving as neo-traditional “openers”.

The only pitcher from 2021’s campaign to start more than 30 games was Charlie Morton, whose leg injury suffered in the World Series is likely to put another 30-start season in jeopardy.

There is a list of young, unestablished question marks battling for rotations spots behind Max Fried, Ian Anderson and Morton, when he returns. While Kyle Wright, Kyle Muller, Tucker Davidson and Huascar Ynoa offer potential, Atlanta may look to add another, established veteran starting pitcher to add stability to its rotation, as the team sets-out to defend its 2021 World Series Championship.

If Alex Anthopoulos follows his recent trend of adding a starter on a one-year deal, then possible first-ballot Hall of Fame pitcher Zack Greinke could be a candidate to be part of Atlanta’s 2022 rotation.

The right-handed Greinke spent last season with the Houston Astros on the final year of a massive free agent contract he signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks in December 2015. He was traded to Houston in a trade deadline deal in 2019.

The 2009 American League Cy Young Award-winner is now 38 years old and utilizes an array of off-speed pitches to compliment a fastball that now averages less than 90 MPH. Since his 2015 season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Greinke has used his sinker far less that in the first half of his career – with usage rates dropping to approximately 6-percent after averaging close to 20-percent the six seasons prior to 2015. He also increased the use of his change-up to north of 20% while using both his slider and curveball approximately 15-perent of the time.

His 2021 season reflected little change in approach, using his fastball 40-percent of the time, with his change-up (22-percent), curveball (16-percent) and change-up (15-percent) making up the majority of his mix.

He is also known for occasionally throwing the most beautiful pitch in baseball.

Greinke is not likely to be the caliber starting pitcher in 2022 has he was in his early 30’s, when he was an All Star five times in six season between his age 30 and age 35 seasons. There were a few troubling signs of decline in 2021. The most notable was his K% which was only 17.2-percent, the lowest he’d had since 2005. His career K% is 22.1-percent – and he was between 23.1- and 26.8-percent from 2017 to 2020 – so there could be some room for a bounce-back in 2022.

In the 171 innings he threw for the Astros last season, he yielded a .252 BA and .725 OPS. His hard-hit rate was still positive at 35.4% while he continued to pitch at his career-norm with a 44.4-GB% but his BB% of 5.2% was below his career average.

FanGraphs showed positive values with his fastball, curveball and change-up in 2021, a continuation of trends seen throughout his career. Most his batted-ball outcomes trended similar to his career norms, but his ability to garner called and swinging strikes were the worst of his career. He also saw a HR9 spike to 1.6, which was his worst since his rookie season in 2004. Those factors led to an unsettling 4.71 FIP, which was the worst of his career outside of the 2006 season when he pitched in only three games. His ERA+ of 103 was also his worst since 2005.

Looking a little deeper at his 2021 is a mixed bags positives and negatives. On the positive, he faired better pitching on the road than in Houston. In essentially the same number of innings, Greinke had a better WHIP (1.012), OPS (.663), SO/W (3.69), and sOPS+ (76) on the road. His post-All Star break wasn’t as strong as before the All Star game, with lower SO/W (2.69), a higher WHIP (1.275) and higher OPS (.802) than in his first half. He also missed most of September with two separate stints on the injured list.

A 38-year-old starter seeing dips in effectiveness could be troubling signs for future years, even through his performance in 2021 was average, yielding an fWAR of 1.3 and a bWAR of 1.2.

Durability has been a hallmark of Greinke throughout his career. He has made at least 28 starts and provided at least 171 innings in all but one regular 162-game season since 2008. The outlier was 2016 when he missed time with an oblique strain.

Projections for Greinke’s 2022 are largely positive, with ZiPS bullish on a rebound from 2021 with a projected fWAR of 2.5 during 161 innings with a projected 4.01 ERA and 4.19 FIP. On the low-end, Steamer isn’t quite as optimistic, but still projects 160 innings and a 1.5 fWAR but with a higher ERA and FIP of 4.59 and 4.57, respectively.

Pitching acumen aside, while the National League adopting the designated hitter is a common assumption as an outcome of the current labor negotiations, the addition of Greinke would add a bit of value from his bat, if the DH were to not become a full-time addition in 2022.

Greinke, a six-time All Star, has added 5.1 bWAR with his bat for his career, which includes two Silver Slugger awards, nine career home runs and a .225 career batting average.

Although he went hitless in two regular season plate appearances last season, Braves faithful may recall Greinke going 2 for 3 against the Braves in the World Series, including a pitch-hit single in Game Five. He went 1 for 2 in his Game Four start, which also saw him pitch four shut-out innings against the Braves.

World Series - Atlanta Braves v Houston Astros - Game Five
Zack Greinke chats with Freddie Freeman after Greinke’s pitch-hit single in Game Five of the 2021 World Series.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

When Anthopoulos jumped the market and re-signed Morton late in the 2021 regular season, he made sure the Braves had at least one veteran arm in their rotation. Last off-season, he also inked Drew Smyly to an $11 million deal, to add an additional veteran starter – although one that was much higher risk than Morton. Smyly ended up being passable, but likely won’t be returning to Atlanta for 2022.

Given that only Morton and Fried exceeded 165 innings pitched for Atlanta last season, the value of adding an average-or-better starter who could provide at least 160 innings makes Greinke an attractive option for the Braves.

Assuming he wants to continue to playing, is it possible that Greinke and his career 73.1 bWAR will don an Atlanta Braves jersey whenever this labor mess gets resolved?

While no one is a soothsayer, 2022 projections provide some optimism that Greinke would be a solid back-end starter, providing positive value. To that end, MLB Trade Rumors projected Greinke to sign a one year, $15 million dollar contract.

Overall industry financial uncertainties due to the lock-out add complexity to his market. If a payroll floor were instituted, would Greinke be the type of player that could benefit from a lower payroll team, like the Marlins, adding him to their rotation? Likewise, would the tax ceiling not increasing preclude some higher payroll teams from adding him if his market is as MLB Trade Rumors projects?

Earlier in the off-season, it was reported that Greinke wanted to sign with a National League team. He’s from – and still resides - in Central Florida. In 2012, the Braves were one of the teams rumored to be attempting to acquire Greinke from the Brewers before Milwaukee traded him to the Los Angels Angels of Anaheim. At that time, it was reported that Greinke liked Atlanta and wanted to win badly, so a decade later, could that still play in the Braves favor if Atlanta sought out the services of the venerable right-hander?

Ultimately, the biggest factors for Greinke’s possible addition to Atlanta’s rotation are financial and fielders. With the Braves carrying a higher payroll into this season, needs in the outfield, and Freddie Freeman’s own free agency situation still unresolved, would the Braves look to add an additional $15M of payroll for a starter with Greinke’s gravitas?

That’s a big unknown. If he were to provide production in-line with his 2022 projections, he would be a worthy addition to the Braves’ 2022 rotation.

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