Zack Greinke has given Milwaukee the top-of-the-rotation ace it so desperately needed. (US Presswire)
Zack Greinke will make his first appearance as an opposing pitcher in Kansas City tonight when the Royals host the Brewers. Greinke won the American League Cy Young award with the Royals in 2009, but was traded to Milwaukee in December 2010 as part of the Royals' ongoing rebuilding efforts. With Greinke returning to Kansas City, here’s a quick look at how that trade is working out for both teams:
From the Brewers’ perspective, the trade has already been a success. When Milwaukee acquired Greinke and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt from the Royals for shortstop Alcides Escobar, minor league centerfielder Lorenzo Cain and minor league pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress, the idea was to strengthen their starting rotation for one last run at the postseason before Prince Fielder’s sure departure as a free agent after the 2011 season. Greinke’s Brewers career got off to an awkward start when he broke a rib playing basketball during the offseason and missed all of April 2011, but he went 16-6 after his return, led the majors in strikeout rate (10.5 K/9), and pitched like the ace Milwakee expected him to be in the second half, posting a 2.59 ERA over his final 15 starts. Greinke’s impact wasn’t as significant as the Brewers had hoped it would be, and he was hit hard in all three of his postseason starts, but they achieved their goal of not only getting back to the postseason for just the second time since 1982, but of winning their first division title and postseason series since that pennant-winning season.
This year, Greinke turned in four quality starts in April and is thus far enjoying his best season since his Cy Young season. Coming into tonight’s start, he is 7-2 with a 3.13 ERA and in 72 innings has struck out 81 men (10.1 K/9) against just 18 walks (4.50 K/BB) while allowing two home runs. The Brewers, who lost not only Fielder to free agency, but his in-house replacement Mat Gamel to a season-ending knee injury, are four games below .500, but also just 4 1/2 games out of first place in the NL Central after having won nine of their last 13. If the Brewers do make yet another run at the postseason, Greinke will play a far more prominent role than he did a year ago. Since coming to Milwaukee, Greinke has gone 23-8 with a 3.62 ERA, 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings and 4.48 strikeouts per walk. The Brewers got what they needed.
Did the Royals? That remains to be seen, but the early returns are positive. To begin with, short of winning another Cy Young award, Greinke wasn’t going to help Kansas City last year or this. The Royals have been graduating some tremendously talented players to the big leagues in the last two seasons, but they have yet to coalesce as a team that could take advantage of Greinke’s contributions, meaning they would have effectively wasted the $27 million he was due last season and this per the extension he signed prior to his Cy Young season. Greinke, who will be a free agent after this season, was most valuable to Kansas City as a trade chip, and they did well to cash him in, something they should have done with closer Joakim Soria, who has since undergone Tommy John surgery.
As for the players they received, Escobar was an instant upgrade on no-hit/no-field Betancourt at shortstop, largely because of his play in the field and speed on the bases. This season, Escobar is out-hitting the average American league shortstop .288/.327/.380 to.251/.306/.360. Escobar is 25, under team control through 2015, and on the verge of becoming one of the best defensive shortstops in the game. He could be the starting shortstop on the next contending Royals team.
Cain was supposed to join Escobar in the major league lineup this year, but just five games into the season, he suffered a groin strain. He then tore his left hip flexor while on his rehab assignment, an injury which has been slow to heal. This is starting to look like a lost season for Cain, who will turn 27 next April and has yet to make his 200th plate appearance in the major leagues. Kansas City had hoped Cain could be, at worst, a stop-gap centerfielder, but that’s starting to look like the best-case scenario.
The centerpiece of the deal was Odorizzi, a righthander and the Brewers’ first supplemental round pick in 2008. Odorizzi, now 22, had yet to pitch in High-A when the Royals acquired him, but was recently promoted to Triple-A, where he has since gone 3-0 with a 2.22 ERA and nearly a strikeout per inning. Odorizzi was rated the 68th-best propsect by Baseball America coming into this season and is now clearly the best pitching prospect in the Royals’ system. He’s not going to be the next Zack Greinke, but he should develop in to a valuable front-of-the-rotation starter whose team-controlled years line up better with the rest of Kansas City's young core.
Finally, 24-year-old righty reliever Jeremy Jeffress is starting to look like a bust, and not just because of his two marijuana-related suspensions, which came before the trade, or his January arrest in connection with a domestic dispute. Jeffress can push triple-digits on the radar gun, but he walked 6.5 men per nine innings across three levels (Double-A to the majors) last year and has thus far had difficulty cracking the Royals strong, young bullpen this season despite improved peripherals.
Even if Cain and Jeffress never pan out, the Royals did well. They got an elite defensive shortstop with an average or better bat for his position and all six team-controlled years of a potential No. 2 starter for two expensive years of Zack Greinke (and a year without the execrable Bentancourt, who returned as a free agent this year). Royals fans may lament Greinke’s departure or decide to boo their former ace for demanding the trade that sent him to Milwaukee, but so far, the deal has worked out for both teams.
-- By Cliff Corcoran