Zach Greinke, on the other hand, has left some doubt to his actual talent level. He’s no doubt an upper-level pitcher, and he’s an ace you can depend on. But how good is he? His 9.4 fWAR from 2009 is 2 fWAR better than anything Lee has done and would place him easily as the best pitcher in baseball, but Lee has had 6.5+ fWAR the last three seasons while Greinke only did it once (around 5 fWAR the other two seasons, which is still excellent). Greinke is clearly awesome, but Lee is dominating and has done it more consistently. Greinke also has good command, but he walks at least one more batter per nine than Lee (1.5 this past season). He does strike out more hitters, but there is little indication that Greinke can replicate the 9.50 K/9 from 2009 (7.40 in 2010). Chances are that Greinke is more of a 5 fWAR pitcher and that Lee is more 6-6.5, making him the better pitcher.
Greinke will also cost you prospects, and he isn’t cheap, making $13.5 million over each of the next two seasons. Jesus Montero is the likely starting point, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they wanted one of the better Yankee pitching prospects as well, with decent but unspectacular prospects rounding out the package. The Yankees can afford all of these things, but wouldn’t it be better to just pay Lee an extra $5-7 million and keep those prospects, especially when you can afford the salary?
There’s also that psychological aspect with Greinke. Some doubt his ability to handle the pressure, and if Greinke doesn’t think he can handle it, he can veto the trade to New York, making this discussion moot. If he feels that he’ll be okay, I’d be inclined not to worry about it because he’s had plenty of pressure and reasons for insanity (isn’t pitching for KC enough?) and has not broken down over the past four seasons. This issue will be played up in the media, but I’m not convinced it’s much of an issue anymore. He’s been pitching without problems the last few seasons, and unless Greinke admits he wouldn’t want to handle NY, I would file anything else under “speculation” and ignore it. But it is something to keep in mind.
Lee is clearly the better pitcher right now, but Lee’s potential is maxed out, while we’ve seen Greinke’s potential to be absolutely astronomical. Chances are that Greinke’s HR rate that season was a bit on the fortunate side, but he probably would have eclipsed 8 fWAR with a more normal (for him—8.5%) rate (I realize Lee probably would have reached over 8 fWAR if healthy that first month, but A) you don’t know how that would have affected him and B) I doubt he’ll near a 10 K/BB ration ever again). I don’t think Greinke can strike out 9+ for an entire season again because spikes like that usually don’t last, but it is possible. Once you’ve seen it, you know it can happen and hope to see it again. Even if Greinke never gets 9 fWAR again, 5 is still really good, and the cost-production ratio would be much better with Greinke outperforming his contract versus Lee simply earning his salary.
Greinke’s also younger. No matter what you think about potential and current ability, there is a five-year age difference, and Lee is on the wrong side of 30. He probably won’t be this good again because that walk rate will probably go back up by half a walk or more, and the natural wear-and-tear will probably mean diminished stuff and a greater chance of injury. Lee doesn’t have that many more miles on his arm than Greinke (only about 300 more), but those are more miles. Greinke has been healthy (physically, at least) for a while, and his youth will help him bounce back better than Lee can.
And while Greinke will cost you prospects, he’ll also cost you at least $10 million less over the next two seasons (probably closer to 14-15), and signing Lee will cost the Yankees their first-round pick next summer. Though that pick is at the back end of the first round, it’s still a valuable pick, and the Yankees really shouldn’t just throw them away.
The commitment to Greinke is also less, as his contract will expire after 2 seasons. Lee’s contract will force you to pay him for at least 5 seasons and maybe more, and considering the health risk of any pitcher, there’s considerably less risk on Greinke. And even if Greinke gets hurt, his contract won’t hurt the team’s flexibility.
Unfortunately, the decision isn’t an easy one, but I’m going to go with Greinke. Lee is 32, and while he has less mileage on his arm than a traditional 32-year old, risking 5-7 years on an aging arm just seems suicidal to me. He’ll cost around $20 million per season, and while he’s certainly worth that per season, will he be for years 3-6? History seems to indicate otherwise, especially for pitchers. And yes, the Yankees can afford to take the hit, but when was the last time a $20 million Yankee went down for more than a month? The Yankees have been especially good when it comes to betting on expensive players and their health, and while it could be an indication that the Yankees are good at such things, the Yankees have had a lot of injuries this season and pitchers are naturally risky. Losing a $20 million player hurts any team dearly, even the Yankees. Greinke is less of a risk, though still a big one, but will cost a lot less in salary. The prospects, however, will be prohibitive. Montero and Banuelos (or insert another top Yankee pitching prospect) is a lot to give up, but Montero is essentially a DH (you can find those) and adding Greinke takes away the weakness in the rotation (Nova, etc. can be potential back-ups). It’s a lot to give up, but the price will be about the same (considering prospects and draft picks as well) with Greinke being a smaller commitment.
Of course, this could all be moot if Greinke really doesn’t want to pitch in New York or if the Yankees decide they want both, which I think they could also do (though I severely doubt they will … but you never know).