The moment a few days ago Zack Greinke(notes) officially requested a trade, the Kansas City Royals understood their star pitcher would not wear their uniform next season. It was a sad moment for the team's executives, their best player asking out, though in hindsight they'll look back on it with gratitude: It forced the Royals to do the right thing.
For a franchise that has occupied the depths of baseball’s latrine for the last two decades, dealing a legitimate No. 1starter seems at first blush a deleterious move. And yet in the aftermath of the blockbuster deal Sunday that sent Greinke and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt to the Milwaukee Brewers for shortstop Alcides Escobar, center fielder Lorenzo Cain, 100-mph-throwing reliever Jeremy Jeffress and right-handed pitching prospect Jake Odorizzi, it felt good and right and pretty even for both sides.
In Greinke, Milwaukee gets a stud to team with Yovani Gallardo(notes) and the newly acquired Shaun Marcum(notes) for a three-pitcher punch as good as any in the National League outside of Philadelphia. General manager Doug Melvin nailed a four-for-an-ace trade three years ago with CC Sabathia(notes), and instead of keeping the pitcher for two months, this time Melvin gets him for two years.
Just as interesting is what this does for Kansas City, a team that fancies itself the next Tampa Bay and Texas, one with an overwhelming cache of talent at the Double-A and Triple-A levels. It is no exaggeration to call the Royals' farm system among the best of the last 25 years, and nearly every other team with such talent has won and won big.
Of course, these are the Royals, who could turn a golden goose into an iron gander. The only expectations in Kansas City are how things will go wrong. Greinke represented a sliver of greatness onto which fans could glom amid pervasive ineptitude. It was, after all, the constant losing, rebuilding and uncertainty that poisoned Greinke's competitive spirit. The 2009 Cy Young Award recipient wanted to win, and with the Royals poised to do so by 2012 at earliest, he was unwilling to wait.
And that, as much as anything, is why the Royals made this move now instead of holding onto Greinke through spring training and until the July 31 trade deadline, perhaps regaining some of the leverage they lost with his trade request: All of those prospects are going to be with the Royals this spring, and all of them would have been surrounded by the Greinke questions: What is he doing here, why does he dislike it so much, how can he survive another year of losing?
For a franchise looking to change its standing not just among the public but inside baseball, keeping around a malcontent is bad for business. Never would Greinke publicly avow his true feelings – the Royals treated him too well during the social-anxiety-disorder episode that kept him sidelined for nearly the entire 2006 season – but ballplayers aren’t stupid. They see it. They feel it. And those around Greinke last season could tell.
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By dealing Greinke and David DeJesus(notes) this offseason, the Royals purged the final vestiges of the teams that lost 100 games three of four seasons. The kids will avoid first-hand accounts of the horrors of institutional incompetence. Come September, the core of the 2012-and-beyond Royals could be getting a sniff of the major leagues. Third baseman Mike Moustakas(notes) and first baseman Eric Hosmer should provide the pop alongside Billy Butler(notes).
Last year's first-round pick, Christian Colon, should shift over to second and slide in alongside Escobar, a top 10 prospect in all of baseball last year whose arm at shortstop, said one scout familiar with him, "is legit plus-plus," among the best in baseball. Previously in Milwaukee, manager Ned Yost is familiar with Cain and Escobar, who fill a pair of up-the-middle holes with strong defense. If either can hit, it turns the deal into, at very least, a push for the Royals.
Though Odorizzi is a couple years away, he provides a right-handed complement to the four left-handed arms – Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, Chris Dwyer and Danny Duffy – that will comprise the rotation at Double-A Northwest Arkansas in 2011. All have frontline starter potential. All may see the major leagues this year and join Jeffress, who by the end of the season could slot in front of Joakim Soria for a devastating eight- and ninth-inning combination.
While Kansas City's offseason machinations are an affirmation of the prospect culture today in baseball, the Brewers' are an indictment against it. Melvin is either the best kind of poker player or the worst, a go-for-broke sort whose all-in gambits succeed or fail spectacularly. With his new rotation, a lineup with Prince Fielder(notes), Ryan Braun and Corey Hart(notes), and a new manager in Ron Roenicke, the wide-open NL Central became a whole lot more interesting Sunday.
And in Kansas City, a place that wants to love its baseball team, the fans heartbroken by all the losing came to grips with the inevitable. Zack Greinke, who created palpable excitement across the city two years ago, no longer is theirs to relish and cherish. He is now a means to an end – an end for which those in Kansas City have yearned far too long, and an end for which Greinke was simply unwilling to wait, lest the iron gander show up once again.