SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Zack Greinke should be right in his element by Opening Day. He’ll take the mound for the Arizona Diamondbacks, and if past performance is a harbinger of future results, the Colorado Rockies will have difficulty solving his array of four pitches thrown with precision and purpose.
The get-acquainted process, which will unfold during the next six weeks in the Cactus League, will be more challenging for Greinke to navigate. On an overcast Friday morning at Salt River Fields, Greinke threw his first bullpen session as a D-back to catcher Welington Castillo. Shortly thereafter, he walked into a conference room and spent 20 minutes answering questions from the media from behind a podium and a microphone.
As most people familiar with Greinke’s storyline are aware, he’s come a long way since the days when his social anxiety issues were part of every narrative. But his media interactions still feel more like an inquisition than a give-and-take. Awkward pauses and sporadic eye contact abound. Some questions elicit clipped responses, while other answers are surprisingly effusive. And Greinke has an almost pathological honest streak. If you’re tired of canned or diplomatic responses, he’s definitely your man.
One such exchange took place Friday when Greinke was asked if he’s had a chance to interact with Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, who is in Arizona’s camp as a special assistant to team president and CEO Derrick Hall.
“Just a little bit," Greinke said. “He seems more normal than you imagined when he was playing. But I could be wrong."
Similarly, Greinke gave an entertainingly off-kilter response when asked if it helps to be reunited with Arizona pitching coach Mike Butcher, who filled the same role when Greinke passed through Anaheim with the Angels in 2012.
“I haven’t thought about it too much -- if it’s a positive or a negative," Greinke said. “It’s just kind of what it is. But he’s been a good pitching coach in the game for a while. That’s always better than an average pitching coach or a bad one."
The Diamondbacks tested the limits of their comfort zone when they signed Greinke to a six-year, $206.5 million contract in December. Coupled with the December trade that brought Shelby Miller to Arizona from Atlanta, it was a statement that the Diamondbacks are ready to assert themselves and turn the National League West into a three-way brawl with the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants this season.
The windfall was also a reward for Greinke’s 2015 season, when he led the majors with a 1.66 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and 30 quality starts and still finished second in the NL Cy Young Award race to Jake Arrieta of the Chicago Cubs. Six years seems like a long commitment to a pitcher who turned 32 in October, but the Diamondbacks are betting that Greinke’s pitching mastery will stand the test of time in a Greg Maddux sort of way.
Arizona’s two big starting acquisitions -- combined with a lineup led by All-Stars Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock -- have energized fans in the desert and cast the Diamondbacks in a more promising light this spring. Last year, national writers passing through the Cactus League felt obligated to drop by the San Diego and Seattle camps in Peoria. This spring, Salt River Fields at Talking Stick is a must-visit destination.
Gaudy numbers notwithstanding, Greinke was generally perceived as Clayton Kershaw’s sidekick in L.A. and had the luxury of laying low on a roster filled with big names. Now he’ll be front and center, counted on to lead an Arizona rotation that’s likely to include Miller, Patrick Corbin, Rubby De La Rosa and Robbie Ray on Opening Day. Even if Greinke has a reputation as a man of few words, he has told the Diamondbacks he’s comfortable filling a leadership role on the roster.
Manager Chip Hale thinks Greinke has some things in common with Goldschmidt, another unassuming star with tireless attention to detail. Hale has already been impressed with the way Greinke goes full-bore in bunting practice, or fielding ground balls, or working on pitches in the bullpen.
“Obviously, leaders are all different types," Hale said. “Zack is cerebral and he likes to be in small groups. One-on-one with different pitchers, he’s good at that. He’s actually told us he wants to be a mentor for some of our younger guys. He’s always mentioned how it really helped his career when Gil Meche came to Kansas City. He wants to have that same effect on some of our guys."
If Greinke’s personal history provides any clues, his teammates had better be prepared for brutal candor if they seek him out for feedback. When Greinke pitched for the Dodgers, catcher A.J. Ellis was his best friend on the team. According to media accounts, they were playing general manager one day and kicking around ways to make the team better when Ellis asked Greinke for his thoughts.
“My first move would be to trade you and sign Brian McCann," Greinke told his buddy.
Against that backdrop, it might take a while for Greinke’s teammates to learn his personality quirks and how best to approach him. But when they seek him out for opinions, they can rest assured his responses will be honest and insightful.
“I feel comfortable going up to him if I have questions," Corbin said. “I don’t think there’s any pressure to shy away from him. I think he’s here to help and try to make himself better, as well as everybody else. His brain is full of knowledge -- just like the coaches and the other pitchers here. Even if you take something he says the wrong way, you’ll definitely go home and think about it. Just knowing his career, what he says is probably true."
That combination of uncommon authenticity and pitching mastery sets Greinke apart as Arizona’s new $206.5 million man. If he can keep holding pitching clinics every five days and help the Diamondbacks become perennial contenders, he just might be worth the investment.