What a difference a year makes.

Last winter, Zack Greinke was baseball’s reigning ERA king and arguably the offseason’s hottest free-agent commodity. The Los Angeles Dodgers wanted him back. The San Francisco Giants wanted to pry him away.

Greinke ultimately, and somewhat surprisingly, signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks for six years and $206.5 million.

Now, after his ERA ballooned to 4.37 during a deflating season in the desert, Greinke is an albatross.

The $34 million he’s owed next season could swallow more than a third of the Diamondbacks’ total budget, as ESPN.com’s Buster Olney noted

That’s the mess new D-backs general manager Mike Hazen inherited. His task is to mop it up, per Olney:

…as Hazen establishes himself with the Diamondbacks, perhaps he could do what his predecessor would have never been in position to do: persuade ownership to dump Greinke and as much of his contract as possible, even if it means eating some of his salary in the years ahead. Greinke’s contract is already a serious impediment for Hazen, as he goes about his work of trying to build a consistent winner in Arizona, and the problem might only get worse if Greinke’s performance continues to decline next season.

It won’t be easy. The Diamondbacks would walk away from any Greinke trade with some egg on their face. On Nov. 9, Hazen said the team is “fully anticipating that Zack is going to be back next year,” per MLB.com’s Steve Gilbert.

If they can shed a portion of his salary, though, and net a couple of decent prospects, they should jump at the chance.

Despite his down year, Greinke has upside. Between 2013 and 2015, his 13.5 WAR ranks eighth among big league pitchers, according to FanGraphs’ measure.

He’s 33, which means this decline could be real and permanent. But he’s also one season removed from leading MLB in ERA (1.66), ERA+ (222) and WHIP (0.844).

If there were an entry in the dictionary for “high risk, high reward,” it would be a picture of Greinke’s grinning visage.

The only realistic suitors are clubs with gaudy budgets and fertile farms. From that group, three emerge as the most logical. Let’s examine each, and the packages they may be willing to offer.

It’s all speculation at this point, but it should be high on Hazen and Arizona’s due-diligence list. 


New York Yankees

The Yankees have been in rebuild mode since the 2016 trade deadline, jettisoning expensive veterans and adding young talent to a minor league system Bleacher Report’s Joel Reuter ranked No. 1 in the game. 

Taking on a chunk of Greinke’s salary and giving up prospects for the privilege would be a redirect, to say the least.

New York, though, is always in win-now mode. The Bronx faithful demand it. Its rotation is sketchy after ace Masahiro Tanaka, with mercurial right-hander Michael Pineda, creaky veteran southpaw CC Sabathia and a muddled cast of youngsters filling in the picture.  

Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe name-dropped New York among possible Greinke landing spots. Joe Giglio of NJ Advance Media likewise said the Yanks “loom as a possibility” in the Greinke sweepstakes.

New York should refuse to part with any of its top prospectsa group headlined by outfielder Clint Frazier and shortstop Gleyber Torres—even if the D-backs are willing to pick up half of Greinke’s tab or more.

A mid-tier name such as 20-year-old right-hander Drew Finley—the Yankees’ No. 19 prospect, per MLB.com—along with a throw-in player and an offer to absorb the bulk of Greinke’s salary should get the Diamondbacks’ attention.

Still, given New York’s current trajectory, we’ll put the likelihood of this at somewhere between “low” and “not gonna happen.”


Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox don’t need to add an ace-level arm with recently minted AL Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello and David Price already in the fold.

After a disappointing division-series sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Indians, however, it’s a safe bet president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski will have his eyes out for upgrades to any facet of the roster.

Like New York, Boston has a loaded farm system and a hefty payroll. Hazen, meanwhile, was the Sox’s GM last season, so he presumably has a direct line to Dombrowski.

Top prospects such as infielder Yoan Moncada and outfielder Andrew Benintendi shouldn’t even enter the conversation. Perhaps someone like lanky lefty Trey Ball, ranked as the Sox’s No. 14 prospect by MLB.com, or a high-upside gamble like 19-year-old Dominican outfielder Yoan Aybar could whet Arizona’s appetite.

If Boston is going to swing a trade for a starter, it could set its sights on other targets, including the Chicago White Sox‘s Chris Sale or the Detroit Tigers‘ Justin Verlander, as I recently outlined. Greinke would likely come at a lower cost in talent, though, if not dollars.

OK, now the soggy blanket: The Red Sox will pay Price $30 million for at least the next two seasons, at which point the lefty can opt out. They also need to fill the David Ortiz-sized hole in the middle of their lineup. Shelling out for a significant portion of Greinke’s contract would strain the purse strings.

Plus, with both New York and Boston, there’s the question of whether a move to the hitter-happy AL East would help Greinke get his mojo back.


Los Angeles Dodgers

They say you can’t go home again, but the Dodgers and Greinke could test that axiom.

It’s more than a wild fancy. L.A. “expressed interest” in trading for Greinke in August after he cleared waivers, per Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal.

The talks “were not substantive and did not advance,” according to Rosenthal’s sources. Still, it shows the door to a Greinke-Dodgers reunion is cracked open.

Ace Clayton Kershaw returned strong from a back injury that cost him two months in 2016, and Japanese import Kenta Maeda was a steady No. 2.

Trade-deadline acquisition Rich Hill is a free agent, however, and the rest of the Dodgers rotation is a mishmash of promising-but-untested youngsters (Julio Urias), middling veterans (Scott Kazmir) and uncertain injury comebacks (Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu). 

Simply putting a Dodgers uniform on won’t return Greinke to his former glory. There are causes for cautious optimism, though.

The Dodgers had the third-best team defense in the NLand all of baseballin 2016, while the D-backs had the Senior Circuit’s second-worst, per FanGraphs. Arizona’s Chase Field was baseball’s second-most hitter-friendly yard, per ESPN’s Park Factors statistic, while Dodger Stadium was the second-least. 

That’s not to suggest all of Greinke’s 2016 struggles can be pinned on shoddy defense or his home-field disadvantage. It’s possible, however, that a return to Chavez Ravine could rekindle his All-Star flame.

Like Boston and New York, Los Angeles could hang on to its top MiLB talent and still put together an enticing package. Catcher Austin Barnes—an Arizona State alum and the team’s No. 10 prospect, per MLB.comwould make for a nice centerpiece, as would 21-year-old right-hander and No. 8 prospect Jordan Sheffield. 

The biggest impediment, however, may be the Dodgers’ financial situation.

L.A. boasted baseball’s highest payroll in 2016, but the team is under pressure to tighten its belt to conform to MLB’s debt rules, per Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times

That could hinder the club’s ability to bring back key free agents such as third baseman Justin Turner and closer Kenley Jansen, let alone shoulder part of Greinke’s contract. 

The safe bet is on Greinke staying put. The Diamondbacks should keep asking, however, and see if they find a pliable taker.

Last winter’s prize has become this offseason’s toxic asset. What a difference a year makes.


All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

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