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Orioles free agent target: Zack Greinke

If the Orioles don’t want to spend much for another veteran starting pitcher, the former Cy Young winner could be an intriguing short-term fit.

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MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

As MLB’s winter meetings begin to ramp up in San Diego today, Orioles fans are anxiously awaiting a significant signing, hoping Mike Elias’s declaration of “liftoff” and the promise of an increased O’s payroll will land the club a big-name free agent. But if Saturday’s reported signing of veteran starter Kyle Gibson is any indication, the Birds might not be planning to swim at the deepest end, or even the medium-deep end, of the free agent pool.

The offseason has only just begun, of course, and nobody outside the organization knows the club’s budget restrictions this winter. The Orioles, while unlikely to get involved with top-tier hurlers like Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodón, could still make a play for Chris Bassitt, Nathan Eovaldi, or another quality free agent starter for a three- or four-year deal.

But let’s assume for a moment that the O’s would prefer to sign another starting pitcher who won’t require a pricey, long-term contract. Well, they could do worse than a future Hall of Famer who hasn’t had a bad season in 17 years.

The 39-year-old Zack Greinke doesn’t show up anywhere on FanGraphs’ Top 50 free agent list and is only an honorable mention in Keith Law’s. His fastball no longer tops 90 mph and his strikeout rate (4.1 K/9 in 2022) ranked in the bottom 1 percent of pitchers this year. Yet the 19-year MLB veteran just continues to get hitters out. Greinke’s 111 ERA+ for the Royals this season would have ranked third among Orioles starters, behind only Austin Voth (132) and Dean Kremer (124), and was significantly better than Gibson’s 81 ERA+ for Philadelphia.

Greinke, at this point in his career, may not be Bassitt or Eovaldi. He’s certainly no Rodón. But he’d likely mark an upgrade for the Orioles’ rotation as it stands now, while bringing the clubhouse one of the game’s smartest hurlers and most off-beat personalities.

Nicky Lopez, Royals: I was on the bench with him and we were facing someone who really liked cats. I was like: “You can’t trust anyone who likes cats.” He goes: “Yeah, man, you really can’t.” I go: “I like dogs. You got any, Zack?” He goes: “Nah, I would never get dogs. I’ve got a cat, though.”

Greinke has been pitching for so long that his first major league win came against the Montreal Expos, a team that hasn’t existed since 2004. Yet despite his status as a first-round pick by the Royals in 2002, Greinke became one of MLB’s unlikeliest success stories, overcoming struggles with depression and social anxiety disorder that nearly forced him to quit baseball in 2006.

With the help of therapy and medication, Greinke battled his way back to the Royals after a nearly year-long absence and quickly emerged as one of the game’s most dominant pitchers, winning the AL Cy Young for Kansas City in 2009. Since then, he’s changed addresses numerous times for more than a decade, spending time with the Brewers, Angels, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Astros, and then back to the Royals in 2022, while excelling for each club. His three-season stint with the Dodgers from 2013-15 was particularly strong; Greinke finished in the top 10 of the NL Cy Young vote each year, and was runner-up in 2015, when he went 19-3 with an MLB-leading 1.66 ERA and 0.844 WHIP.

Tim Federowicz, Dodgers: So we’re in a team meeting, and it was a real serious meeting getting ready for the playoffs. Like, “Let’s get ready, everyone get locked in, we’ve got about a week left.” And then at the end, Don (Mattingly) was like, “All right, anybody got anything?” Zack raised his hand, and we’re ready to listen to him. And he goes, “Yeah, after you guys are done using the bathroom, just make sure you wash your hands.”

Greinke’s 71.5 career WAR per Baseball Reference is third-most among active pitchers, trailing Verlander (78.1) and Clayton Kershaw (73.1), each of whom is a former teammate of Greinke’s. His 2,882 strikeouts are also third-most, behind Verlander (3,198) and Max Scherzer (3,193). He’s been a great pitcher for a long time, and he’s not finished yet.

What the modern-day Greinke lacks in velocity (averaging 89.1 mph on his four-seam fastball in 2022), he makes up for in a diversified repertoire. Greinke throws six different pitches according to Baseball Savant, balancing the four-seamer with a with a curveball, changeup, cutter, and slider, plus a sinker on rare occasions. His looping curve is the best of those offerings, holding opposing hitters to a .222 AVG and .347 SLG this year.

The veteran right-hander is constantly adapting his pitching style. An avid student of baseball, Greinke has been a proponent of analytics and modern pitching metrics since the beginning of his career. Royals catcher Salvador Perez, a 12-year veteran, called Greinke “one of the smartest pitchers I’ve ever met in my life.” His rotation mate Brady Singer said he’s “addicted” to the game. “He watches, studies all day long.” Studying video and being in tune with analytics can’t help a pitcher overcome Father Time forever, of course, but it doesn’t hurt.

Jake Lamb, Diamondbacks: He’s been playing a long time and is one of the best in the game, so our first year together I asked him, “Do you have a favorite strikeout? Is there a guy you idolized growing up that you struck out?” He kind of gave me the nod, thinking, thinking, and then he started laughing. Like, belly laughing. I was like, “You got one?” He was like, “Yeah. It was actually here at Chase Field. I threw a changeup in the other batter’s box and the guy swung and almost fell over.” I said, “Zack, was that me two years ago?” He started laughing even louder. “Yeah, that was you.”

Perhaps the most compelling reason to sign Greinke is that he seems to be just a delightfully quirky human being. The Athletic has published not one, not two, not three, but four oral histories of Greinke’s career, comprised of his current and former teammates telling their most memorable Greinke stories. (All quotes in this article are pulled from those sources.)

Greinke’s quiet, brutally honest nature, which in his early years was considered a detriment, has now won him the appreciation of his peers. Among other things, players describe Greinke as “an unbelievable teammate” and “one of a kind,” calling it a “privilege” and an “honor” to share a clubhouse with him. For an Orioles team that thrived on good clubhouse chemistry in 2022, the addition of Greinke could keep the positive vibes going.

Alex Avila, Diamondbacks: We were on the bus and it was one of the first road trips last year, just a few weeks into getting to know him. I remember saying, “Zack, from what I’ve heard, you’re sometimes tough to get along with. What changed?” He said, “Yeah, I don’t have many more years of playing, so I figured I’d work on my personality.”

Greinke has made a chunk of change in his career, signing a six-year, $147 million deal with the Dodgers in 2012, from which he opted out after three seasons and inked a six-year, $206.5 million contract with Arizona in 2015. It’s safe to say the current version of Greinke would be a lot more affordable. His 2022 deal with the Royals was for one year and $13 million. If he’s interested in shopping around his services this winter, a similar deal would likely suffice.

Whether Greinke is interested in signing with the Orioles, or anywhere, is a real question. The conventional wisdom is that he’ll either re-sign with the Royals, where he’s most comfortable, or retire. And the Orioles, with all due respect to Greinke, may be seeking a hurler with more upside and better swing-and-miss stuff.

Signing Zack Greinke wouldn’t necessarily be the Orioles’ strongest path to contention. But it sure would be a lot of fun.