With a single, unexpected move, the Brewers may have become NL Central favorites. Sunday, they bolstered their weakest link -- starting pitching -- with one of the best in the game, trading shortstop Alcides Escobar, outfielder Lorenzo Cain and two prospects to the Royals for Zack Greinke and Yuniesky Betancourt. The addition of Greinke makes the Brewers five to six wins better than they were without him, a gain they give back some of with the shortstop exchange, but not nearly enough to change the deal for them. This is a significant step for the Brewers, an even bigger move than the acquisition of CC Sabathia that propelled them into the 2008 playoffs.
The Brewers now have three very good starters in Greinke, Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum. Randy Wolf is a six-inning, 4.50-ERA guy in the No. 4 slot. Chris Narveson will battle Manny Parra for the No. 5 slot. That's a championship-caliber rotation. The bullpen will return most of the players who made it an asset in the second half: John Axford closing, Zach Braddock and Kameron Loe setting him up, Todd Coffey in there as well. Jeremy Jeffress was to have taken a role in this group, and the Brewers may wish to add a power arm -- this is a potential destination now for any number of closers on the outs with their teams: Jonathan Papelbon, Francisco Rodriguez and Jonathan Broxton come to mind.
The Brewers have been scoring runs for some time: they finished in the top two in the NL in Equivalent Average, a Baseball Prospectus statistic that measures the quality of an offense, the last two years, and they return the same group of hitters, save Escobar, in 2011. No Brewers regular is 30 years old yet, and their best players, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, will be 27 -- the average peak age for hitters -- next year. The Brewers are combining a good offense at its peak with, finally, an above-average pitching staff. The comp you can dream on: the 2008 Phillies, who dramatically upgraded their run prevention over the 2007 team and won the World Series for their troubles. This Brewers team has that kind of upside, 92 wins and a division crown, and after that ... anything can happen.
For the Royals, they get back a package of players who could all end up wet with champagne some time late in 2013. The key is Jake Odorizzi, taken in 2008 with a pick the Brewers received after allowing Francisco Cordero to leave as a free agent. Brought along slowly by the Brewers -- he didn't pitch in full-season ball until his third year as a pro -- the righthander used a polished approach and above-average stuff to strike out 135 men in 120 innings in the Midwest League. He's two years away, in all likelihood, and looks like a No. 2 or No. 3 starter in the majors, someone who may not be Greinke's eventual replacement, but the guy pitching behind Mike Montgomery, who is.
The more famous hurler going south in the deal is Jeremy Jeffress, a big right-hander who can touch 100 mph. Jeffress is better known for his drug problems, having been suspended multiple times and putting his career in jeopardy -- the Brewers put him on their 40-man roster this year in part to get him under the MLB Joint Drug Agreement, rather than have him risk further discipline as a minor leaguer. It's something of a surprise that the Royals would take him -- it was a little over a year ago that they gave away problem child Danny Gutierrez, and they seemed to be operating in the manner of Dayton Moore's old organization, the Braves, in valuing citizenry as much as talent.
Jeffress has the skills to be an impact reliever immediately, perhaps even a closer should Moore trade Joakim Soria. However, given that the Royals don't have much to play for in 2011, they may be better off letting Jeffress continue to work on his secondary pitches and his command at Triple-A. The Brewers needed his skills immediately; the Royals do not.
I've been a big fan of Escobar since watching him in the Arizona Fall League when he was 18. He had great defensive skills then and no real hope at the plate. He's filled out a bit since, though it hasn't changed who he is as a hitter. Escobar has very little power, so he was overmatched in his first full year in the majors, hitting .235 with just 29 unintentional walks and 28 extra-base hits. He has good speed, not great, so he's not picking up 40 infield hits a year in the manner of Ichiro, nor stealing so many bases (10, against 4 CS) as to give him additional value that way. His defense graded out last year as average by both UZR and plus-minus. He's not that young -- he turned 24 last Thursday. I'd rather have him than have Betancourt, and the Royals have the luxury of giving him 1,200 plate appearances over the next two years, at the minimum salary or a little more to see if he can be the shortstop when they're ready to win. It's an upside play; if Escobar is the third-best prospect in a deal, that's not a bad package.
I have Escobar ahead of Cain, and I may not be in the majority. Cain will be 25 in April, making him an old prospect, though he did get 147 major-league at-bats last season. He's advanced slowly because of a habit of having a really bad year (.276/.338/.344 in the Florida State League in '07; .218/.294/.330 at three levels in '09) at the wrong time. He's shown very little power above A ball and none at Triple-A, and his strikeout rates -- above 20 percent at the higher levels -- will chip away at his batting average. He can play center field, and he'll have to, because a .260/.325/.380 bat -- a reasonable projection -- won't play anywhere else. Cain looks more like a fourth outfielder than a regular, and as with Escobar, the Royals are in position to run him out there for two years to test the theory.
The Royals didn't break the bank with this deal. This isn't their Mark Teixeira trade. They took their upside in the arms of Jeffress and Odorizzi and got low-service-time, low-cost position players who have some potential to become good regulars, though not stars. It's easy to see all four of these guys as contributors to the 2016 World Champions; it's just hard to see any of them as MVPs or Cy Young winners. Then again, that's the job of Eric Hosmer and Montgomery.
Whatever the analytic angles, the story here is that this trade is fantastic for baseball. In an offseason dominated by what the East Coast scary monsters have done, the big-market dollars spent by Boston and Philadelphia and even Washington, it's refreshing to see a legitimately small-market team make an aggressive move to win now. The Brewers are living off the talent generated by the time Jack Zduriencik spent with them, watching it on the field and using it in trades. This step, though, using some of that bounty to accelerate the process and put a winning team on the field -- a championship team on the field -- is not one that every organization can navigate. Doug Melvin earned his pay with this deal, trading some of the team's future to enhance its present, the one where his lineup is loaded with at-peak hitters and his team has money to spend.
Melvin still has work to do. Betancourt is a terrible player who needs to be replaced. He may have to find an alternative for center field, where Carlos Gomez has failed to be a solution. Without Jeffress, the Brewers could use a power arm for the 'pen. Having traded for Greinke, the Brewers have made it very clear what they're trying to do; it will do them no good now to hold back financially as they look to put the best team they can on the field next year.
Today, throughout baseball, people are talking about the Milwaukee Brewers. That's a good thing, no matter who you root for.