Ace Pitcher Zack Greinke Could Spark Arizona Diamondbacks Championship Season

Nobody thought the Arizona Diamondbacks would land coveted free-agent pitcher Zack Greinke — not even the team’s front office.

The rumors published in the baseball media in early December suggested that the 2009 Cy Young Award winner was choosing between offers from his current team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, as well as the San Francisco Giants, both of which are division rivals to the D-backs in the National League West.

Shortly before midnight on Wednesday, December 2, a couple of baseball’s media insiders reported from their sources that Greinke would make a decision by Friday.

The Diamondbacks didn’t even start their pursuit of Greinke until that Thursday.

“Serious conversations didn’t start maybe until a week before we made contact with Greinke and his agent,” Diamondbacks General Manager Dave Stewart says. “Even those conversations were more hypothetical than they were realistic.”

The team already had made a $122 million offer to free-agent starting pitcher Johnny Cueto, which the former Cincinnati Reds and Kansas City Royals ace rejected as too low.

“We figured that if we went that far, we might as well try to see if we could get one of the best guys out there,” Stewart says. “The night before we actually made the signing is when everything started to take momentum.”

Stewart went up the chain of command to get approval for a six-year, $206.5 million contract offer that would be the largest in team history — more than three times the total value of the team’s largest-ever contract.

Stewart gave the proposal to team President and CEO Derrick Hall. In turn, Hall sought approval from Ken Kendrick, managing partner of the Diamondbacks’ ownership. On Friday morning, Hall came back with the approval from Kendrick.

The team immediately sent in the offer to Greinke’s agent, who didn’t exactly give a promising response to the D-backs.

“The agent said it was last minute, and there wasn’t much time left, but he would ask Zack if he would entertain the offer,” recalls Tony La Russa, the team’s chief baseball officer. “He had his doubts.”

Sure enough, a supposed bidding war between the Dodgers and Giants was won by the Diamondbacks. Greinke picked the desert.

“Fifteen minutes later, [Greinke’s agent] called back and said Greinke would take the offer,” La Russa says.

Now in just their second year together in the Diamondbacks’ front office, La Russa and Stewart have the team in “win mode.”

Both La Russa and Stewart scoff at the question of whether anyone in the team’s front office or scouting department had any doubts about Greinke.

They’re sure about his talent to the point that they’ve committed to paying Greinke, who’s currently 32 years old, between $34 and $35 million per year for the next six years, for a total of $206.5 million.

The stats show that Greinke’s aging like fine wine — he posted the lowest earned-run average and highest winning percentage of his 12-year career last year with the Dodgers. He struck out 200 batters and ate up more than 220 innings.

La Russa likens Greinke to his GM, Stewart, who won 20-plus games four years in a row for the Oakland A’s in the late 1980s, saying they both “give you a chance to win 30 times a year.”

However, there was a point earlier in Greinke’s career when fans may have seen him as a liability. Greinke was diagnosed with anxiety a few years into his career with the Kansas City Royals, a problem that had gotten so bad he actually quit baseball for a few weeks. He reportedly considered mowing lawns for a living instead of playing baseball.

Greinke’s had to explain his anxiety issues over and over as he’s changed teams, which includes trades to the Milwaukee Brewers in 2010 and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2012, and his free-agency signing with the Dodgers before the 2013 season.

No, it doesn’t affect him on the field, he explains; it’s being a celebrity off the field that bothers him. Yes, he takes medication, and yes, it works.

“We figured that ... we might as well try to see if we could get one of the best guys out there,” says GM Dave Stewart, referring to Greinke.

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Yet while the Boston Red Sox were in pursuit of a top pitcher this offseason, a Boston Herald columnist suggested Greinke wouldn’t be a good fit because of the added stress of playing in Boston, based on claims made by an unnamed source “close” to the pitcher. Some of the more overtly snide comments about Greinke include the CEO of the San Diego Padres likening him to Rain Man — for which he later apologized — and Deadspin, the sports-gossip website owned by Gawker, saying of Greinke: “We’re not sure the elevator goes up to that floor.”

Ever since Greinke was labeled “that pitcher with anxiety” in 2006, stories have trickled out of major-league clubhouses actually painting Greinke as a locker-room personality and a total cutup.

In his first bullpen session with the Diamondbacks this spring, a reporter for MLB.com asked him how he expects to improve on his insanely good 2015 season with the Dodgers.

“I don’t think you can build on it,” Greinke reportedly responded. “It’s about as good as it’s going to be for me. I’m probably not that good.”

For a guy who tries to shy away from media attention, he’s been quoted with some Yogi Berra-level wisdom.

“I’d say the average person wouldn’t eat a Chipotle burrito and still do his running, full speed, like me,” he’s quoted as saying from his time with the Royals. “That’s why they call me special.”

There are plenty of Greinke tales that came out last summer in reporter Molly Knight’s book on the Dodgers, The Best Team Money Can Buy. According to Knight, manager Don Mattingly had called for a team meeting in the Dodgers’ locker room, but Greinke stood up, grabbed everyone’s attention, and said, “Some of you guys have been doing the number two and not washing your hands. It’s not good. I noticed it even happening earlier today. So if you guys could just be better about it, that would be great.”

According to Knight, some of Greinke’s teammates thought he was dead serious, until others started bursting with laughter.

Yet another tale came from Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski, after Kansas City called Alex Gordon up to the majors in 2007. Gordon, the biggest prospect in baseball at the time, struggled at the plate in the big leagues. At one point, Greinke ushered Gordon to the team’s video room. Gordon probably thought Greinke, of all people, had somehow found something wrong with his swing.

Nope — Greinke just wanted to show Gordon a video of himself hitting a home run.

“Do more of that,” Greinke said.

Greinke’s proven over the last decade that’s he’s not a liability in the clubhouse and is anything but a liability on the field, but his contract could become a massive liability if his performance seriously dips as he ages into the second half of his 30s.

As if the Greinke signing didn’t make it clear enough, Dave Stewart, despite having just one season under his belt as a general manager, isn’t shying away from taking bold steps to overhaul this team.

He’s made more than two dozen trades since taking over for former general manager Kevin Towers in the fall of 2014, and since then, he’s dealt three of the D-backs’ first round picks.

Stewart traded the team’s first pick from 2014, Touki Toussaint, to the Atlanta Braves to offload the contract of pitcher Bronson Arroyo, and acquire infielder Phil Gosselin.

In December, he traded the number-one overall pick in the 2015 draft, Dansby Swanson, along with Ender Inciarte and Aaron Blair, to the Braves for pitcher Shelby Miller and pitching prospect Gabe Speier.

The D-backs’ first pick in the 2016 draft already is out the door, as the team had to forfeit the pick as compensation to the Dodgers for the Greinke signing.

Stewart doesn’t think too much of the criticism that’s been levied against him for this, as no one in the front office really believes they’ve traded away the farm to win now.

“I think a lot of attention has been paid to the draft picks because they were high picks, number-one picks, but not much attention has been paid that we’ve put young talent back into our system,” Stewart says. “We have, from day one, been cognizant and made the effort to be sure that we’ve added to our minor-league system.”

“We’ve got to dream someplace,” says Diamondbacks Chief Baseball Officer Tony La Russa, “and we dream of October.”

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La Russa adds, “The average age of all the acquisitions is 23 years old. That dispels the saying that we’ve depleted [our minor-league system and] that we’re going all in for a year or two.”

Plus, two of these moves — the Greinke signing and the trade for Miller — address the lack of talent at the starting-pitcher position — the team’s most glaring need going into the last offseason — in one of the most aggressive ways possible.

The Diamondbacks had the second-best offense in the National League in 2015. Advanced statistics show that D-backs fielders saved more runs than any other team in Major League Baseball. The team’s bullpen ERA was in the top half of major-league teams. The ERA from the starting pitchers, however, was ranked 23rd.

Adding Greinke and Miller to the top of the rotation ought to help.

Greinke’s record speaks for itself, and while Miller’s stats haven’t been dazzling in his short career, he’s shown signs of potential greatness — including a selection to the All-Star Game in 2015 (at age 24) in a season that included two complete-game shutouts.

La Russa says the Miller trade “makes sense,” as he believes it gives the team a better chance of winning lots of games.

In a rotation that already included Patrick Corbin, Rubby De La Rosa, and Robbie Ray, it’s hard to not be optimistic that it’ll be an improvement over recent years.

Meanwhile, an offensive juggernaut is behind them, powered by first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and center fielder A.J. Pollock. If Cuban outfielder Yasmany Tomas lives up to his expectations — and hefty contract — as a true slugger, the offense could be even better.

The D-backs front office even addressed the bullpen, with their signing of veteran reliever Tyler Clippard.

All of these signings and trades create the appearance that there’s some urgency to winning, and yet the Diamondbacks have not bet the farm, nor the bank.

The team payroll this year is just shy of $92 million, which is the 10th lowest in Major League Baseball. The Dodgers’ payroll is roughly double that.

Down on the farm, the Diamondbacks still have two players considered among baseball’s top-100 prospects, in right-handed pitchers Archie Bradley and Braden Shipley.

MLB unleashed technology last year to track how hard batters hit the ball, and D-backs prospect Peter O’Brien currently holds the record for hardest-hit home run, launching a ball nearly 120 miles per hour into the stands this spring training. Socrates Brito, a 23-year-old who’s been developed by the D-backs organization since he was a 17-year-old in the Dominican Summer League, has the chance to break into the majors in the D-backs’ talent-packed outfield.

The front office’s plan isn’t just to win now; it’s also to win later.

If you didn’t know what Tony La Russa looks like, you could identify him from quite a distance just by the massive World Series rings on his hands.

Left ring finger: 1989 Oakland A’s. Right ring finger: 2006 St. Louis Cardinals. Right pinky finger: 2011 Cardinals.

La Russa, already a Hall of Famer for his 33 seasons as a manager, is in Arizona in a bid to extend his legacy to front-office management. He was hired by the Diamondbacks early in the 2014 season for the position of “chief baseball officer,” a person installed above the general manager in the team’s front-office hierarchy.

La Russa let then-GM Towers finish out a 98-loss season, in which Towers had run up the team’s payroll to nearly $109 million.

Towers rejected a demotion within the Diamondbacks organization, opening up the team’s GM spot. (For what it’s worth, La Russa says Towers eventually will be owed “a lot of credit” for the players he kept here.)

Stewart was hired shortly after Towers’ departure, in a reunion of player and coach from more than two decades ago. Stewart was the pitching ace of an Oakland A’s team that appeared in three straight World Series, with La Russa as the manager. Together they won the famed “Earthquake Series” of 1989, a four-game sweep of the San Francisco Giants wherein Stewart was the winning pitcher of record in games one and three — the latter of which was rescheduled because of the Loma Prieta earthquake.

“After I retired, we always stayed in touch,” Stewart says. “I had a great admiration for him, what he stood for, and the man that he is. When you battle the way we did through those years, you develop friendships. In this sport, your true friendships continue after the game.”

It had been 20 years since Stewart and La Russa wore the same hat, after Stewart retired from baseball and La Russa went on to manage the St. Louis Cardinals. Both men have remained in various roles around the game ever since, with Stewart taking a variety of front-office and coaching jobs before starting his own sports agency in the early 2000s. La Russa retired from managing after the 2012 season, and was working for the baseball commissioner’s office when he was approached by the Diamondbacks.

Neither man seems incredibly surprised that they found themselves reunited in a major-league front office.

“[I] really needed someone who embraces competition,” La Russa says. “Stew was in that core of leaders that made sure that our team bought into, and kept buying into, our philosophy of competing.”

And though media types and fans alike clowned on Towers for preferring players with what he saw as grittiness, La Russa also prefers these types of guys in the organization — he simply prefers the word “competitor.”

This is the big leagues, he says, where every team is loaded with talent. It takes more than that.

“To have that talent develop into skills, and develop into an awareness to be — and a desire to be — a contributing teammate who embraces competition, that takes a certain type of character,” he says. “And [it takes] a competitor.”

Consider La Russa the team philosopher.

Despite the Diamondbacks not having a winning season since 2011, when the team won the National League West, La Russa believes the team’s going to be winning soon.

“When you look at the core that was here — this is before the ’15 season — it was deeper, more talented than you would believe,” La Russa says. “If we have the right opportunity, we can advance the timetable on when we can have a chance to contend.”

So, as Opening Day looms April 4, when exactly do the Diamondbacks expect to be in World Series contention?

“I was always told, [glass] half full and don’t put limits on yourself,” La Russa says. “We’ve got to dream someplace, and we dream of October.”

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Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley