With the free-agent market light on top-tier starting pitching, some general managers who miss out on Cliff Lee will be looking to make trades to bolster their rotation. The top prize on that list? The Royals' Zack Greinke. A year removed from winning the AL Cy Young Award, and four from a public bout with social anxiety disorder, the 27-year-old Greinke is the most attractive trade target available to the teams that fail to make hay with free agents.
Getting Greinke will not be as simple as overwhelming Royals GM Dayton Moore with great prospects, however. Greinke has a limited no-trade clause that allows him to block trades to 15 teams this year (it was 10 in 2009 and 2010), but none in 2012, the last year of his deal with the Royals. This adds some intrigue to the proceedings, as Greinke is assumed to have little interest in heading to a large-market team. This is based on both statements he's made and his background battling anxiety. That may eliminate the usual suspects in a deal like this and open the floor to teams that aren't usually thought of as contenders for top-tier talent. For the purposes of this article, I'm assuming that the teams in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Boston are blocked by Greinke.
Greinke has two years left on a contract that pays $13.5 million in both 2011 and '12. It's not certain that he'll test free agency after '12 -- as opposed to Cliff Lee, who was a certainty to do so -- leaving open the possibility that trading for Greinke could yield an extension, so the negotiating rights have some value. Moore has some motivation to trade Greinke, who may be the prize of the 2012 free-agent class and could pull down $20 million per season on the open market.
Even a Royals club on the upswing (they may be the next Rangers, who themselves were the "next Rays") and benefiting from generous revenue-sharing funds would have trouble committing one-third to one-quarter of its payroll to a single starting pitcher. Moore can use Greinke to fill the only real weakness in what has become the game's best farm system: up-the-middle position players. Only 2010 first-round pick Christian Colon fills that bill, and he's likely to move off shortstop over time. Catching prospect Wil Myers seems likely to end up in the outfield as well. Frankly, Greinke would make a fantastic anchor for the Royals, but their window of opportunity and their ownership of Greinke overlap by a year at most, depending on how quickly the front end of their prospect wave, Eric Hosmer and Mike Montgomery, makes an impact.
No, Moore is right to look to use Greinke to make those 2013-2016 Royals teams as good as they can be. What teams make good trade partners? Well, as much as he might love to have Yankees catching prospect Jesus Montero or Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro, he has to make a deal with a team that Greinke will play for. Like any GM in this situation, he's best served by jamming as much value into as few players as possible. Talent is not distributed evenly, so one A-list prospect is worth a lot more than twice two B-list prospects, and so on. As silly as it sounds, a one-for-one trade for the Angels' Mike Trout, the second-best prospect in the game, would be the perfect deal for the Royals. For that reason, it's likely out of reach, but it represents the type of trade Moore needs to make: adding one or two top-50 guys, rather than a number of top-150 ones. He has depth; he's looking for stars.
On the flip side, teams looking to trade for Greinke should 1) have that kind of talent, 2) be looking at a two-year window in which adding one great starting pitcher can put them over the top, and 3) have the payroll and talent flexibility to maximize the value of a trade like this. If they can potentially re-sign Greinke, all the better. It's a surprisingly small list of teams that meet all the criteria. Here are the best fits:
The Royals may be reluctant to trade within their division, an understandable, if somewhat archaic, viewpoint. The Twins can solve the Royals' centerfield problem with Ben Revere, a Denard Span-type player who gets on base and plays a plus centerfield, and who could be an MLB regular by the middle of 2011. As impressed as the Royals may have been with Jarrod Dyson late in the year, Revere blows him away as a player. They can add righthander Kyle Gibson, who reached Triple-A late in the year, to create a package that will be hard to match. (The Royals could also ask for 2009 No. 1 Aaron Hicks instead of Revere, taking a longer payoff than Revere provides.) The Twins, whose main weakness is the rotation behind Francisco Liriano, can use Carl Pavano's money to pay for Greinke to bolster a pitching staff that has fallen behind the offense in contributing to the team's success. They have a couple of seasons before the new-park smell wears off and their core of Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer begins to slip. Now is the time for them to make the big move.
Their focus is on retaining Lee. Whether they do or they don't, they have the prospect base and financial resources to add Greinke, building a package around teenage shortstop Jurickson Profar and lefthander Martin Perez, who a year ago was considered a top 10 prospect and who, despite an off-year at Double-A, is still valuable. Profar is the kind of extremely young prospect the Royals haven't generally brought in from the Caribbean, and he gives them two shots, with Colon, of having a championship-caliber shortstop, their own Derek Jeter. (Ideally, the two would form a double-play combination down the road.) Moore's desire for more major-league-ready talent may require the inclusion of righthander Tanner Scheppers, a power arm whose role in the majors is unclear, or even postseason hero Derek Holland. The Rangers thinned out the top of their farm system significantly over the past two seasons, both in trades and in graduating players to the major leagues, but they can still make a strong bid for Greinke.