Bye bye, Zack Greinke

My favorite Kansas City Royal is still George Brett.

It should be Zack Greinke, but it can’t be anymore. He’ll be pitching Opening Day for the Milwaukee Brewers. Part of me knew this was inevitable. Mostly I’m glad he won’t be pitching for the Yankees.

It looks in some ways like trades of previous stars, where they traded Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, and Jermaine Dye for guys who turned out to be nothing more than mediocre relief pitchers and utility players. Out of the haul they got for those three stars, only John Buck turned into anything–and Buck did it while playing for the Blue Jays, after his Royals days were done.

There is a difference this time. A slight one. The guys they got are young, and if they don’t turn out to be superstars, they have enough speed and play good enough defense to still be useful players. Most near-miss teams fail not because they don’t have enough superstars, but because they don’t have enough average players to round out the roster. If one of these guys sticks in the everyday lineup or in the starting rotation, they’ve done better. If two do, they’ve done a lot better. If three do, then it’s a successful trade.

Some fans are fuming because the Royals aren’t willing to pay for good players and they regard this as just a salary dump. I don’t think that’s the case. And in the last few years they’ve tried to get some players. They’ve gotten guys like Jose Guillen and Rick Ankiel. B- and C-list players.

And I did some math. Let’s just say the Royals threw enough money–probably somewhere in the neighborhood of $400 million–at the best three free agents available this season. Let’s just say they outbid everyone and landed Jayson Werth, Carl Crawford, and Cliff Lee. Gaining those three players would have been good for 15 wins on its own, based on the current state of the art statistics. That would put the Royals at about 82 wins, based on last year’s total.

Chances are, being surrounded by three really talented professionals who’ve won before would energize some of the Royals’ underachievers. Guys like Zack Greinke and Alex Gordon. An energized Greinke might be good for 5 more wins, bringing them to 87. Maybe a couple of other players start playing better, and the Royals scratch out some more wins. But it’s a long road to the 95 wins that it would have taken to beat out the Twins. And last year, the Twins won 95 games despite not having their second-best hitter last season. In the American League, 95 wins doesn’t necessarily get you a playoff spot.

I think the Royals want a few bright spots, but I think they want to lose 100 games this season.

Here’s why. In 2012, the rules of the draft are likely to change. In 2006, the Royals had a farm system that most people regarded as worse than that of an expansion team. They were literally worse off than a team starting from scratch. Four years later, they have one of the best, if not the very best, farm system in the major leagues.

They’ve done that partly by awarding huge bonuses, well above what the league recommends. Dangle a few million–enough to be set for life–in front of a player who was favoring going to college or playing another sport, and frequently the player will go ahead and sign. Combine that with having high draft picks due to being a bad team, and you can stock a farm system pretty quickly.

Baseball America thinks the rules will change so teams won’t be able to overpay draft picks in 2012 and beyond. Since the Royals may be about to lose the only advantage they have, I think they want to make the most of that last chance. Losing 100 games doesn’t guarantee a first-round pick, but it’ll get you close to the top. The first-round guy doesn’t always pan out anyway. They’ll have early picks in each round, players will be under tremendous pressure to take anything above what the commissioner’s office says they’re worth, and the Royals will be sitting there with an extra $14 million–the money they aren’t paying Zack Greinke–to spend. Potentially the Royals will have one last shot to load up on slightly overpriced talent, particularly of the 17- and 18-year-old variety, and that $14 million could be enough to land two or three or even four blue-chip prospects this summer.

Not only that, this trade gives the Royals at least one good prospect at every position. So now, rather than drafting based on need, they can go into this last great draft and pick the best-available player every round, rather than passing on somebody because he plays third base and they desperately need a center fielder.

And, truth be told, I’d be a lot less happy about this trade if Greinke hadn’t quit on the Royals at least twice. Playing for a losing team isn’t as much fun as playing for a winning team. I know that, because I played for first-place teams and I played for last-place teams. But he’s making $14 million a year to play a game that I had to give up as a teenager so I could go get a job. He makes more in a single year to play a game than most people will make in a lifetime. And many pitchers just like him toiled for last-place teams for a lot longer than he would have had to. The Royals babied him, letting him play a season in AA when he was ready to pitch in the majors simply because that AA team was winning a lot of games. They used him as a relief pitcher to ease him into things, even when they desperately needed a starter. When he needed time off to get treatment for social anxiety disorder, they gave him all the time off he wanted. And last year, when they were decimated by injuries and needed their Cy Young Award-winning pitcher to take the ball every fifth day and break losing streaks, they never knew if they were going to get that Cy Young form, or if he was just going to throw batting practice for a few innings to see what would happen.

Let me take back what I said about if the Royals got three guys who stick as regular players, this is a successful trade. No, if they get four guys who give it their best regardless of what they think of the rest of the team, this is a successful trade, because it improves the organization.

George Brett never quit on his team. He played hard no matter how much it hurt, and he did whatever the team needed. When they needed outfielders, he played out of position and did it well. When they needed a third baseman, he went back to his old position even though he hadn’t played it in five years. Put 25 guys out there who play like that, even if they have half the talent Brett had, and it’s a better team than 25 whiners like Greinke.

That’s why I have a 32-year-old George Brett poster hanging in my basement. I never bothered to get a poster of Greinke.

Goodbye, Greinke.

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