Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Zack Greinke

The Brewers completed a deal this weekend to acquire 2009 Cy Young award winner Zack Greinke from the Royals for four prospects. The Royals felt they would not be able to resign Greinke when he becomes a free agent after the 2012 season, and wanted to trade him now so that they could maximize the value for him and receive prospects to supplement their #1 farm system.

From the start, the Brewers were considered a favorite for Greinke because of their commitment to improving their pitching staff this winter, and because of their ability to trade the major league ready "up-the-middle" help that the Royals stated would be necessary in any deal. With the deal complete, we answer the burning questions.

1. Did the Royals really need to trade Zack Greinke?

Need is a strong word, but the Royals clearly felt that there was no chance that they could keep Greinke after 2012. The losing and constant rebuilding behind him seemed to have taken its toll, but if Moustakas, Hosmer and the rest develop quickly, that could turn around quickly. More important to the Royals, they felt they were in a situation where they could trade Greinke and get significant value in return - talent that would be under contract through the middle of the decade at a low cost when the Royals expect to contend.

2. Which Zack Greinke will show up for the Royals?

In 2009, Greinke went 16-8 with a 2.16 ERA, winning the Cy Young Award. In 2010, he fell off to 10-14, and the ERA jumped over two runs per game to 4.17. So where will he stand? Which was the real Greinke? Are the Brewers getting a 27 year old ace, or a glorified #3 starter two years away from free agency?

It's very possible that he will never reach the heights of 2009 again. Let's take a look at his last three seasons. His walks and groundball/flyball numbers all stayed about the same, but fewer fly balls went out of the park, and he struck out 9.5 per nine innings, rather than 8. However, Greinke had more than his share of bad luck this year. First off, the Royals defense was the worst in the American league in converting balls in plays into outs. That .312 BABIP was among the worst of AL qualifiers, and right about in line with what a pitcher on the Royals would be expected to have. However, Greinke seemed to have several of those fall in at especially bad times - opposing players hit 26 points higher with men on base than they did with the bases empty, despite his strikeout rate being the same and home run rate being lower. A pitcher with Greinke's rate stats, pitching in front of the bad Royals defense, would be expected to have an ERA around 3.27, and in front of an average defense, it would go down to between 3.10 and 3.15.

Unfortunately for Greinke, the Brewers defense was actually slightly WORSE Than the Royals - only Pittsburgh had a lower defensive efficiency in all of baseball. On the bright side, Grienke is in the non-DH league, meaning his strikeouts will go up, and his walks and home runs will likely go down. Adjusting for the difference, his expected ERA goes down to 3.03, good for 12th in the National League. Even better for Greinke is the Brewers offense. It wasn't quite as potent as in some past years, but they were still 4th in the NL in scoring, compared to the Royals, who were 10th in the AL. An ERA in the range between 2.90 and 3.25, with the innings Greinke provides, should give him a won-loss record of something in the neighborhood of 18-9. That's probably not quite enough to compete with the Phillies aces and Tim Lincecum for the Cy Young award, but it is a legitimate #1 starter. Going into his age 27 season, the Brewers have an ace for the next two years and possibly beyond.

3. If Greinke had such bad luck last year, wasn't it foolish for the Royals to trade him while his value was low?

Maybe? The Royals got a legitimate haul for him though, and suppose Greinke blows out his shoulder in May? This was a deal Kansas City might have considered even if they thought they could resign him.

What did the Royals get back in return?

Quite a bit.

Alcides Escobar is the most famous player going to Kansas City. Before 2010, the Brewers traded JJ Hardy to the Twins to open up shortstop for the 23 year old Escobar, their #1 prospect. Meanwhile, the Royals decided Yuniesky Betancourt was good enough to go into their season as the starting shortstop. For an organization that had decided the same thing about Neifi Perez and Angel Berroa in the last decade, I suppose that was about par for the course, but it still didn't make it a good idea. So what happened? Betancourt hit .269/.288/.405-right in line with his career numbers. Escobar, though, was MUCH worse, hitting an anemic .235/.288/.326. Of the 138 major league qualifiers, he had the 133th highest slugging average and the 132nd highest OBP.

On the bright side, unlike Betancourt, Escobar was a plus defensive player, and has acceptable batting numbers in the minor leagues: .298/.353/.409 at AAA Nashville in 2009. There is possibility of improvement here, especially since Escobar's contact rates are solid. He is just going to need to hit the ball harder in order to be a major league player. At the very least, his defense makes him an upgrade over Betancourt. Long term though, he has a lot of work to do on offense to be part of the solution for the Royals.

Lorenzo Cain is a centerfielder who will turn 25 a couple weeks after opening day. Cain was solid in 2010 for the Brewers, after being fantastic in the minors earlier in the season, but there are warning signs. Cain has little in the way of power, and has been old for his level in most of the minor leagues he's played in. However, Cain is very fast, and his defense looks to be above average. More importantly, he's kept his walk rates about 10% for most of his career, which means he'll be able to keep his OBP above .330 even in seasons where he's not getting much luck in the batting average department. For a plus defensive center fielder, that is a player with value. Cain should start over Melky Cabrera this season, and be a serviceable player for a long time, and the upside here for the Royals is a pretty exciting leadoff hitter in front of Butler/Moustakas/Hosmer.

Jeremy Jeffress throws a baseball harder than just about anyone else alive. A first round pick of the Brewers back in 2006, and going into 2010, he was looking like a bit of a bust. Despite outstanding (10+ per 9 inning) strikeout rates, Jeffress simply had walked WAY too many people to make any progress, throwing too many pitches to get him through significant innings. Even more alarming was the 100 game suspension for a "drug of abuse." So, despite a fastball that sits at 100 miles per hour and can reach 102, Jeffress was on the outside looking in.

In 2010, the Brewers moved Jeffress to the bullpen, with outstanding results. Those high strikeout rates turned even higher, the walks didn't hurt him quite as much, and his ability to keep the ball in the park was magnified - across four levels he allowed zero home runs. Jeffress probably needs a couple months of fine tuning in Triple A, but there will be significant pressure to get him on the Royals major league roster. If Joakim Soria is traded at midseason, this is your closer in waiting. The upside here is a thinner Bobby Jenks in Jenks' best seasons. There is risk here, but lots of potential reward as well.

Jake Odorizzi
is the upside portion of this trade. The 2008 first rounder turns 21 in March, and was fantastic at Single A Wisconsin in 2010, capped by a start in late August where he threw 8 no-hit innings against Cedar Rapids. He is mechanically smooth throws his fastball in the low 90's, touching 95 on occassion. He has work to do on his secondary pitches, but he has time. There is ace potential here.

5. How does this affect the Royals and Brewers, short term and long term.

The Brewers are back in line to compete with the Cardinals and Reds for the division title. Greinke will give them lots of quality innings, and makes them a much better team in October if they reach there. Considering the haul they gave up, they'd better reach October, because there is not a lot of help on the way. Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus had Jeffress and Odorizzi as the Brewers top two prospects.

Meanwhile, in the Royals organization, they become the #8 and #9 prospects, respectively, which just goes to show how insanely deep the Royals system is. The Royals are in a position much like the Tampay Bay Rays in 2008. After several years of ineptitude, they have had several quality drafts in a row, and they should be contenders by 2013. Trading Greinke hurts them for 2010, but they will be able to evaluate Cain and Escobar. This is a trade that looks like it makes sense for and should benefit both teams.

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