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Keep or Trade Zack Greinke?

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The Astros are better off keeping Zack Greinke in 2021 than not under most scenarios.

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MLB: ALCS-Tampa Bay Rays at Houston Astros Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

In this morning’s post ($), Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic went into detail about the Red Sox and their potential to purchase prospects this offseason. This possibility basically comes down to this factor: Boston has the ability to absorb large salaries amid the uncertainty of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact on the sport. With the league proclaiming a few billions in losses across the sport in 2020, most clubs have exhibit reluctance to spend this offseason. Some have even actively shopped players who are due to make large sums in 2021. As noted in Rosenthal’s report, the Red Sox have “dual goals of building for the future while improving in 2021.” For a club with one of the worst pitching staffs in 2020, it makes sense for Boston to explore the trade market to address the rotation.

So, what does the report have to do with the Astros specifically? Nothing in particular until the article mentions Zack Greinke, who is entering the last season of his contract, and his $32 million salary as a potential match. To be fair, Rosenthal does note that a trade between the Astros and Red Sox, along with other clubs, as “difficult, if not impossible.” Boston, in theory, would require a major league ready prospect or two in addition to justify absorbing a large amount of salary while also surrendering prospects who are further away from contributing to the parent club. In this age of financial uncertainty, teams are perhaps more reluctant — if that was even possible — to part ways with players with multiple years of pre-arbitration control remaining.

At first glance, the notion of the Astros trading Greinke feels like a bit of a reach. For one, Houston is roughly $37 million below the tax threshold of $210 million for the 2021 season. Although Jim Crane and the front office led by James Click hasn’t given much of indication about payroll constraints, the likelihood of large quantities of spending is doubtful. It also seems unlikely that the club takes a keen interest in shedding money for the sake of trimming the payroll, at least in 2021. And, no, I don’t foresee the Astros trading away a prospect or two from a weakened farm system with another year of sign-stealing penalties to deal with to simply shed salary.

Secondly, Greinke is the probable ace of the staff next season as Justin Verlander is unavailable due to recovery from Tommy John surgery. While the team had numerous pitchers step up in a shortened, sixty-game season, Greinke affords the Astros a known quantity in an area where additional depth is arguably warranted. Plus, Houston is expected to contend again in 2021 with FanGraphs currently projecting the team to have a 38.7 fWAR next season, which would tie the Twins for the third-best total at this point in the offseason. Although subtracting Greinke’s 2.5 projected fWAR for next season isn’t a great loss on paper, especially if the return was worthwhile, it still feels like an odd move for a core that may have one more season to contend before a soft reset in 2022. With only one season left on his contract, it is arguable whether the likely return would even justify a trade.

That said, I wouldn’t say trading Greinke isn’t going to happen with absolute certainty. Most clubs like to gauge interest to gather what their best players would command on the trade market. In other words, they are looking for an offer just too good to refuse. For example, Click was part of the front office in Tampa that traded Chris Archer to the Pirates for Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, and Shane Baz back in July 2018. Not exactly a fair comparison as age, projected performance, and the remaining contract terms are different between Archer at that time and Greinke today. But if the right deal came along — from the Red Sox or anyone else — I can envision ownership approving such a deal, especially if monetary savings are combined with a terrific return.

Including the Astros, teams ought to want to have Greinke on their roster, who had a better season than his 4.03 ERA across twelve starts would indicate. Strikeouts were up (+1.4 percent) while walks trended slightly down (—0.4 percent). The biggest concern about Greinke’s profile is the velocity decline in 2020, though I would argue that a shortened season with little ramp up time preceding is something to keep in mind. Keep in mind that the Diamondbacks are still contributing $10.33 million for one more season to help cover a portion of Greinke’s salary, which effectively reduces the commitment to roughly $21.66 million for 2021. Barring something unforeseen and a tremendous return for a one-year rental, it would surprise me to see Greinke in another uniform for Opening Day 2021.