MILWAUKEE — A framed picture hangs at the end of a long back hallway in the Milwaukee Brewers press box. It’s a picture of ace pitcher Zack Greinke, and on the surface, it seems very much like the other posed photographs in this hallway.
It’s a typical picture of Greinke, if there is such a thing — the pitcher deeply, yet blankly, glaring at the camera. But, on a deeper level, this photo is much more. It’s an icon of the transformation that has taken place in this stadium it hangs in.
Soon, however — maybe not today, maybe not next week, or even next month — this picture will be taken down. On Friday, the Brewers traded their ace for three Angels prospects, relinquishing a player general manager Doug Melvin admitted was one of the best in baseball.
All in all, Greinke’s time in Milwaukee amounted to just 19 months in a Brewers uniform — not a very long time considering the haul of prospects the team traded to get him. That group, which included now-Royals starters Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain, along with two quality pitching prospects in Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress, has shown Kansas City — several times over — that passing along Greinke was worth it.
But for Milwaukee, it’ll never be that easy. Though shortstop Jean Segura and right-handers Ariel Pena and John Hellweg are solid prospects in their own right — all three were rated in the top 10 in the Angels’ organization — this haul, on the surface, is not equal to the one given away by the Brewers in December 2011.
Melvin knows this. But the truth of the matter is that kind of comparison — however common it will become in analyzing this trade — is utterly arbitrary.
“I had said all along and tried to tell our people, ‘We’re not going to get as much,’ ” Melvin said Friday. “But we don’t know until these players play. They might be better. … I told both GMs, ‘I’m not looking to try to get back the trade that I did with Kansas City because we had Zack for a year and a half.’ These teams are going to have him for 12 starts. I didn’t want to try and gouge.”
And in that year and a half, Greinke helped transform the Milwaukee Brewers organization unlike anyone had in almost three decades. Greinke was the first true ace the Brewers had in ages. He won 25 games for Milwaukee and never — ever — lost a game at Miller Park. By every estimation, he is a once-in-a-generation type of pitcher for a small-market team, and that’s not even taking into account the oddities that made him an interesting staple in an eclectic Brewers locker room.
In Milwaukee, the chances of having one $100 million player, let alone two including left fielder Ryan Braun, are slim. And by making Greinke an offer in that range before trading him, the Brewers gave it the best shot they could within the budget they are constrained by. They knew all along they weren’t likely to keep him, but that wasn’t the point when he came to Milwaukee, and it isn’t the point now. For those 19 months, the trade that brought Greinke to the Brewers was undoubtedly worth it. And now that he’s gone, bringing along a slightly lesser haul of prospects, there’s no doubting the Brewers’ 2010 blockbuster was still worth every lost prospect.
Greinke helped take the Brewers to new heights that the team and its fans hadn’t seen since the early 1980s. Though Melvin’s short-term trade for C.C. Sabathia in 2008 brought Milwaukee to the playoffs, Greinke’s trade helped do one better, giving the team its first-ever National League division title.
A transformation took place at Miller Park. And without Greinke, that transformation never would have been possible.
Greinke isn’t likely to return to Milwaukee, even if he says that coming back through free agency is possible. A long-term contract that large for a pitcher is a risk the Brewers would be very careful about taking. But now for Milwaukee, as for any other small-market team, it’s a matter of letting the cycle renew itself before making yet another big splash. This is the circle of life in baseball.
The Brewers will cross their fingers that Segura becomes the shortstop of the future and that Hellweg and Pena become fixtures in the rotation. If they do, Milwaukee will have been handed an embarrassment of riches for what would have amounted to 12 or so meaningless starts.
But even if the trade isn’t that successful, there’s reason to look upon the Zack Greinke era in Milwaukee with fond memories. It’s not a matter of what the Brewers gave up to get him but rather what they received in return — their best shot in two decades at winning a World Series — that should be remembered. And if a championship is ever within such close reach, you make every concession possible to go for it. For that, Melvin should have no regrets.
Greinke’s picture won’t likely remain hanging in this back hallway for long, staring back at those who walk past it toward the press box seating. But while it does, it will serve as a reminder of the price the Brewers paid to go for it all.