Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/18/14
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Zack Greinke is putting himself in a great situation. Not only is the 28-year-old Milwaukee Brewers’ ace dominating hitters again, he’s doing it in a contract year. With the Brewers allegedly suspending contract talks with Greinke just last month, it looks like Greinke might take his chance on the free-agent market.

If Greinke were to hit free-agency, he and Cole Hamels would be the two most-sought-after starters. The Brewers have said they are willing to sign Greinke to a long-term extension — but based on recent pitcher deals — Greinke may price himself out of their budget.

Since breaking into the league in 2004, Greinke has been one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. During his career, Greinke has accumulated 32.7 WAR — which makes him the ninth-best pitcher during that period. But Greinke also carries a bit of a stigma: In his sophomore season, Greinke slumped badly and ended his season with a 5.80 ERA. During the spring of 2006, it was revealed that Greinke had been dealing with a social anxiety disorder and depression. He pitched just 6.1 innings that year.

Even with those struggles, Greinke’s overall performance has been impressive. Using our leaderboards, we can compare Greinke to similar pitchers during recent years. Greinke’s WAR total puts him in elite company. The chart only sorts pitchers through their age-28 seasons — since that’s when Greinke will hit the free-agent market. And because Greinke just entered his age-28 season, his WAR total should rise before he hits the market.

The top player on the list, CC Sabathia, is actually a pretty decent comparison for Greinke. Both players made their major league debuts at 20 years old, and both hit free-agency around the same age (Sabathia was 27, Greinke will be 28). That off-season, Sabathia signed a seven-year, $161 million deal with the New York Yankees. Greinke wasn’t as good as Sabathia during those early years, but he was comparable.

Greinke compares even more favorably to Johan Santana. Even though Santana wasn’t a full-time player until he was 23, both players have produced nearly the same amount of value through their age-28 seasons. If Greinke can muster a 5 WAR season this year, he’ll actually have produced more value than Santana by the time he hits the market. Santana — who reached free-agency at his age-28 season — received a six-year, $137.5 million contract with the New York Mets.

The two players immediately below Greinke — Justin Verlander and Roy Oswalt — signed extensions with their clubs and never reached free-agency. While their deals aren’t comparable to what Greinke will make, they give us a good idea of why players test the market. Even though all three pitchers put up comparable numbers, Verlander made $80 million while Oswalt made $73 million.

The last two interesting names on the list are Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. Cain recently signed a six-year, $127.5 million extension with the San Francisco Giants. Many analysts think Greinke will use that deal as a benchmark during his negotiations. While Lincecum hasn’t signed a big extension yet, he’s rumored to have turned down a five-year, $100 million offer from the Giants.

Since Cain’s deal was an extension, it’s reasonable that Greinke would expect to make more on the open market. While we don’t know exactly what kind of deal Lincecum is seeking, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Greinke was after the same contract. The Sabathia and Santana contracts give us an idea of what similar pitchers made just four or five years ago. If we adjust for inflation, Greinke could justifiably ask for something between Sabathia’s and Santana’s contracts. Because of his past issues, teams might be hesitant to offer Greinke such an expensive contract. But based on his performance, he deserves to be paid like an elite starter.


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