Kansas City Royals: Six Years After Trading Zack Greinke

KC Royals general manager Dayton Moore dealt former Cy Young winning pitcher Zack Greinke to the Milwauke Brewers six years ago today. The move proved to be the first milestone along the path that lead to the 2015 World Championship.

On Dec. 19, 2010, the Kansas City Royals swapped Zack Greinke and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt to the Milwaukee Brewers for Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, Jake Odorizzi, and Jeremy Jeffress. Moore pulled off one of the best trades in KC Royals history when faced with Greinke’s demand to get out of Kansas City.

In short, Moore made the very best out of what was a terrible situation. At the time, it felt like another symbol of a failed franchise. The Royals finally developed a truly elite pitcher while helping him overcome social anxiety, only to see Greinke get fed up with losing. I wondered how KC could ever win if they couldn’t keep a homegrown star that they had gone the extra mile to help succeed.

If Zack Greinke wasn’t loyal to the organization, then who would be?

The other problem with the trade was that it pushed the long-awaited turnaround further into the future. In 2009, Dayton Moore believed he could win in Kansas City after a surprisingly strong 75-87 finish in 2008. Yeah. After losing 100 games in three of the previous four seasons, and dropping 93 games in 2007, 87 losses didn’t look to bad.

That winter, he somehow managed to extend Zack Greinke’s contract by two years. Securing Greinke to pair with free-agent success Gil Meche, Moore had locked a formidable duo to headline his rotation for years to come. Rule 5 find Joakim Soria had developed into one of the best closers in the American League. And, second year players Billy Butler and Alex Gordon promised to boost the KC Royals offense.

Moore believed Kansas City could compete if he filled in some holes. Thus he acquired rangy center-fielder Coco Crisp from Boston in return for reliever Ramon Ramirez. Moore then dealt reliever Leo Nunez to Miami for first baseman Mike Jacobs. Jacobs struck out a lot, but he had slammed 32 home runs for the Marlins in 2008. Moore felt he had solved his team’s power problem.

He added utility player Willie Bloomquist as his multi-position sub off the bench. Moore went on to sign free-agent reliever Juan Cruz to replace the departed Ramirez and Nunez. He expected Cruz would become Soria’s set-up man.

For 24 glorious games, Moore’s plan appeared to work. The 2009 Kansas City Royals opened the season 17-7. That start felt like a turnaround for a team that usually fell out of contention by May. Zack Greinke and Gil Meche came out of the gate dominating opponents from the mound. Greinke even scored a Sports Illustrated cover story due to his overwhelming start.

Then everything fell apart.

Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon (4) hits a single during a game against the Chicago White Sox at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-US PRESSWIRE

Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon (4) hits a single during a game against the Chicago White Sox at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-US PRESSWIRE

The 2009 KC Royals Meltdown

Coco Crisp got hurt and ended up playing only 49 games due to a series of nagging injuries. Crisp later proved to be a useful cog in a number of solid Oakland A’s teams of the early 2010’s. The Royals discovered that Juan Cruz wanted to collect a paycheck rather than help the team win. American League pitchers learned to exploit the holes in Mike Jacobs’ swing. 2008 free-agent signee Jose Guillen tore up his knee while putting on a shin guard and only played in 81 games.

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Then idiot manager Trey Hillman destroyed Gil Meche’s arm by allowing him to throw 132 pitches while winning a complete game on June 16. Meche had an impressive 3.31 ERA on that day. His next two starts, he complained of a sore arm and gave up 13 runs in 8.1 innings pitched. Hillman then let Meche throw 121 and 114 pitches in his next two starts.

Gil Meche, whom Moore had signed to the biggest contract in KC Royals history in 2007, was never again the same.

What had begun as a season of hope, crashed and burned into a 65-win disaster. The Royals then followed up their 2009 debacle with a 67-win sequel in 2010. That season saw Moore fire the incompetent Trey Hillman and hire Ned Yost as manager.

Oct. 2, 2010; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals pitcher Zack Greinke watches from the dugout against the Tampa Bay Rays at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

Oct. 2, 2010; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals pitcher Zack Greinke watches from the dugout against the Tampa Bay Rays at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

Zack Greinke Couldn’t Take Anymore

By that time, Zack Greinke had had enough. And, I really couldn’t blame him. I had lost hope, too. Lauded general manager prospect Moore, whom the Royals had lured from a cushy position as heir apparent for John Schuerholz in Atlanta, appeared to be following in the doomed footsteps of predecessor Allard Baird.

I fully expected the Greinke trade to become yet another failure. Baird had frittered away emerging stars Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, and Carlos Beltran for mostly useless players like shortstop Neifi Perez and overrated third base prospect Mark Teahen. Dealing Greinke after he had won a Cy Young award in 2009, felt like more of the same.

Looking back at it, I think Moore managed to extend Greinke after the 2008 season by promising him that the Royals would make moves to contend in the coming years. When those attempts blew up in 2010, I suspect Greinke felt that Moore hadn’t kept his end of the bargain.

However, trading Zack Greinke became the cornerstone for Moore’s future success. Greinke’s fit turned out to be the best thing that could have happened for the Royals.

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The First Signs Of Future Success

While the Greinke trade was the first VISIBLE sign of Moore turning around the team, it was far from the starting point. In actuality, Moore had patiently rebuilt his team’s scouting staff from day one. He had persuaded owner David Glass to invest real money into both prospects and hiring a strong player personnel team.

The problem was, fans largely were unable to see those successes due to Moore’s string of failures at the big-league level. However, those miscues didn’t hurt in the long term. Moore’s attempt to become respectable while rebuilding the farm system didn’t work. But, he made those moves without compromising his prospect pipeline.

Soon after the Greinke trade, both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus rated the Kansas City Royals farm system no. 1 in major-league baseball. Not only were the Royals minor-league prospects good, they were HISTORICALLY good (at least relative to the existence of those two publications).

To me, it was the first time that I had seen sabermetric writers recognize the KC Royals organization as anything but a joke. Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy, Salvador Perez, and Kelvin Herrera all debuted in 2011. Alcides Escobar took over at shortstop. Failed prospect Alex Gordon unexpectedly turned into a star in 2011 after wallowing since his debut in 2007. Gordon had promised to “dominate” in 2011, after returning to AAA in 2010 to transition to left-field from third base to accomodate the emerging Moustakas.

To me, Gordon’s pledge sounded like the same false hope that the front office and local sportswriters had been peddling since the mid-90’s. By July of 2011, Gordon was slashing .293/.363/.479 with 9 home runs and 44 RBIs. Moreover, he had become a spectacular defender in left-field. What looked to be a desperation move, proved to be an inspired decision. Gordon went on to post a 7.1 bWAR (Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement) season.

Gordon’s transformation wasn’t Moore’s only success in 2011. Cheap free-agent acquisitions Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera both posted outstanding years that gave the Royals one of the most productive outfields in MLB. Francoeur and Cabrera were so successful that they kept hot young trade acquisition Lorenzo Cain at AAA for all but six games in 2011.

Joakim Soria fell off to a 4.03 ERA (with 28 saves) in 2011, but young bullpen gun Greg Holland appeared poised to replace him with a 1.80 ERA in 46 games. And, in August, rookie Salvador Perez appeared from nowhere to fill Kansas City’s long-term hole at catcher.

It was Perez that truly made me realize that things were changing in Kansas City. The then 21-year-old backstop hit .331/.361/.473 in 39 games and played outstanding defense. The reason Perez transformed my attitude wasn’t just his performance. It’s that he hadn’t even been mentioned as part of the “greatest farm system since whenever” that winter. If the Royals were developing guys like Perez under the radar, their farm system just might be as spectacular as Baseball America had claimed.

Yeah, the pitching rotation was still a toxic waste dump. But, prospects like Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, Danny Duffy, Chris Dwyer, and Jake Odorizzi were on the way. 2011 made me think that Dayton Moore’s “Process” might not be a joke.

Oct 9, 2015; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar (2) is congratulated by first baseman Eric Hosmer (35) and center fielder Lorenzo Cain (6) after scoring a run against the Houston Astros in the 7th inning in game two of the ALDS at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 9, 2015; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar (2) is congratulated by first baseman Eric Hosmer (35) and center fielder Lorenzo Cain (6) after scoring a run against the Houston Astros in the 7th inning in game two of the ALDS at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

It’s The Scouting, Stupid

In retrospect, the Zack Greinke trade showed how far the KC Royals scouting department had come since the days of Allard Baird.

All four of the prospects they acquired for Greinke and Betancourt became successful major league players. Lorenzo Cain finished third in the A.L. MVP vote in 2015 for his 7.2 bWAR season. Alcides Escobar earned an All-Star nod and Gold Glove in 2015. Jake Odorizzi developed into a no.2/no. 3 starter. However, Odorizzi achieved that status for Tampa Bay after the Royals included him in a four-prospect package that brought back James Shields and Wade Davis. Unfortunately, the KC Royals gave up on Jeremy Jeffress before he learned to command his 100 mph heat. But, Jeffress notched 27 saves for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2016 before a deadline deal sent him to Texas.

That’s a hell of a haul for two years of a disaffected pitcher.

What makes that success even more impressive is that the Brewers package wasn’t the only winning trade that the Royals had cooked up for Greinke. Moore had cut a deal with the Nationals in return for pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, shortstop Danny Espinosa, reliever Drew Storen, and catcher Derek Norris.

That’s another package where all four pieces became successful major-leaguers. Zimmermann made two All-Star teams in 2013-14 before tailing off with the Tigers in 2016. Drew Storen served as a closer in Washington for two seasons and has compiled a 3.31 ERA over a seven-year MLB career. Danny Espinosa became an above-average defender at short with good pop for a middle infielder (though he struggles to get on base). Meanwhile, Derek Norris earned an All-Star nod in 2014 with the A’s and enjoyed three seasons as a useful catcher before a bad 2016.

Overall, the Nationals package produced an impressive 41.3 bWAR since 2011. That’s comparable to the 42.5 bWAR that Cain, Escobar, Odorizzi, and Jeffress have provided since the Greinke trade.

However, Dayton Moore caught a break that he couldn’t agree with the Rangers and Yankees on a Greinke trade. Those rumored deals would have turned out very badly for Kansas City. Even so, both trades that Moore actually approved were winners. That’s what a successful front office does. Turning down Fool’s Gold in favor of the real thing is the mark of a winning general manager. Moore did it twice in one deal.

In the end, the Shields and Greinke trades give me hope that the KC Royals front office got it right by acquiring Jorge Soler in return for Wade Davis. Those successful moves also make me believe that deals to come will prevent a crash after the 2017 season, despite numerous core players headed for free-agency.

These aren’t your Dad’s KC Royals. The front office is much smarter.

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