By mid-August, he already was talking about 2011, about saving his elbow from the strain of his signature pitch.
The Kansas City Royals were awful again. He already had revealed he'd really rather be pitching somewhere else, for a franchise with some money, some chance, some hope. He'd lost patience.
The plan from there, he said after another loss, was, "Staying healthy, to be ready for next year."
So it arrived early on a Sunday morning in December, when the Royals sighed, weighed Greinke against a handful of young players, and traded away a rare baseball commodity: the undisputed ace.
The Royals hadn't simply drafted Greinke at 18, developed him, housed him in George Brett's spare bedroom and made him rich. They soothed him, stuck with him, sympathized with him, done it all the right way. And so they did to the end, granting his wish to go and, they're betting, positioning themselves for the coming decade.
In Kansas City and baseball towns like it, today is always about tomorrow. They gamble on the draft, on two-for-four trades and on long shots. When the revenue-sharing checks come, they pay their bills. And they hope a player or two come along with the skills and charisma to capture their town and make them relevant.
It's a lot to ask of a young man, to carry the promise of an organization to its fan base. It's more to have him and then recognize his heart isn't in it, that it's not enough.
"We would love to be sitting here discussing a long-term contract with Zack Greinke," Royals GM Dayton Moore said. "You want to hold onto your best players forever. That's a formula for winning championships, as well. But there has to be a willing partner to go forward with that. We actually went down that trail and discussed that trail with Zack long-term, and it was apparent that that wasn't something he wanted to do."
The life cycle for the small-market stud is daunting for all. The end is as heartbreaking as it is inevitable. Then the calendar starts over again, this time for the young men who are the replacements. They'll rebuild an organization, as they did in Mark Teixeira's(notes) name in Texas. Or, more often, they'll simply remind everyone of who and what was lost, as they did in Florida in Miguel Cabrera's(notes) name, even in Kansas City in Carlos Beltran's(notes) name.
Greinke was shoved from the S.S. Glass, and the splash wasn't limited to Kansas City. The Milwaukee Brewers, of course, become formidable in the National League Central. They've added Greinke and 13-game winner Shaun Marcum(notes) to Yovani Gallardo(notes) and Randy Wolf(notes) to a problematic starting rotation. The Cincinnati Reds have been dormant. The St. Louis Cardinals are up Lance Berkman(notes) and Ryan Theriot(notes).
And the National League grew up a little more. While in this offseason the American League retained Carl Crawford(notes) (Boston), Victor Martinez(notes) (Detroit), Paul Konerko(notes) (Chicago) and New York Yankee icons Derek Jeter(notes) and Mariano Rivera(notes), the NL added Cliff Lee(notes) (Philadelphia), Greinke and Marcum, and retained Jayson Werth(notes) (Washington) and Dan Uggla(notes) (Atlanta).
The pinch is most evident in New York, where the Mets have lost ground to the Phillies, Florida Marlins and Braves, and where the Yankees have been surpassed by the Red Sox. The Yankees have attempted at least three times in five months to acquire a 1(B) ace to CC Sabathia(notes), twice failed on Lee and then passed on Greinke, who appears to be the last of the winter's available top-end possibilities.
Probably, it means the Yankees make do with Sabathia, Phil Hughes(notes), A.J. Burnett(notes) and a nightly prayer for Andy Pettitte(notes). The Texas Rangers, who paved their way to the World Series with trades like the one the Brewers just made, likely won't get an ace either (unless closer Neftali Feliz(notes) moves to the rotation), bringing back to AL West contention the Oakland Athletics and, perhaps, the Los Angeles Angels.
And it means the Washington Nationals – bless their little spirited souls, they were a mere Greinke head-nod from having a presence in the NL East – were left behind as well.
Yes, Greinke hit the water and the ripples lapped up against the ankles of most every team in the game, just as they had a week earlier with Lee. Pitchers of their status tend toward the cannonball, as the Royals – and certainly the Brewers – undoubtedly knew.
Division races are altered. Organizational philosophies are swamped. Then the game starts over.
There is no way to know how this ends for Kansas City, for Milwaukee, and for Greinke. We can guess.
The Royals put tomorrow off a day.
The Brewers risked tomorrow for today.
And Greinke, well, today means something for him. It's the day he throws more sliders again.