Brewers chose player over prospects

Prospects. All you hear in baseball, all the time, is that certain prospects are too valuable to trade.

Brewers GM Doug Melvin evidently does not believe in that premise. And he is gambling his job that he will be proven right.

Melvin made the most surprising trade of the offseason on Sunday, acquiring Royals ace Zack Greinke and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt for four of the Brewers’ best young players.

Two of the Brewers’ projected regulars, shortstop Alcides Escobar and center fielder Lorenzo Cain, are part of the package for Greinke. So are two of the team’s top young arms, right-handers Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi.

Odorizzi, 20, actually draws comparisons to Greinke, but some rival clubs believe he could end up in the bullpen. Jeffress, 23, has tested positive three times for marijuana, but throws in the upper 90s and made an impressive debut as a reliever last season.

Melvin clearly is trying to win next season, which almost certainly will be the last in Milwaukee for first baseman Prince Fielder and perhaps the last for second baseman Rickie Weeks.

Earlier this offseason, Melvin made a similar but less extravagant deal, trading perhaps his top prospect, infielder Brett Lawrie, for Blue Jays right-hander Shaun Marcum.

Which is why one rival executive, upon learning of the Greinke deal, used the term “gutted” to describe the state of the Brewers’ farm system.

That description might very well be accurate. But if the Brewers reach the postseason in Fielder’s last hurrah, Melvin will simply figure out the rest later.

Melvin, remember, traded a supposedly rich package for nearly four months of CC Sabathia in 2008. The Brewers have yet to be haunted by any of those players — first baseman Matt LaPorta, outfielder Michael Brantley, right-hander Robert Bryson and left-hander Zach Jackson.

For two seasons of Greinke, Melvin seemingly had to give more. But Cain, who will be 25 on April 13, has only 158 major-league plate appearances. Escobar, for all his gifts, has a .307 on-base percentage in 623 PAs, though he is still just 24.

In this hyper-analytical, rush-to-judgment era, the Royals actually might get criticized for acquiring players who are close to the majors but offer less upside than those that might have been available from other clubs.

It will take years to settle the debate. Melvin, who is signed through 2012 but is under scrutiny from owner Mark Attanasio after two straight losing seasons, needs to win now.

The Brewers should definitely contend in the modest NL Central in 2011. And even if both Fielder and Weeks depart as free agents, they still will boast a decent core in ’12.

Greinke, Marcum, Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf would be in the rotation. Left fielder Ryan Braun, right fielder Corey Hart, third baseman Casey McGehee and catcher Jonathan Lucroy would be in the lineup, along with a promising young hitter, first baseman Mat Gamel. Right-hander John Axford would be the closer, lefty Zach Braddock a setup man.

Shortstop and center field — the two positions the Royals were desperate to address in the Greinke trade — still might be issues. But if Escobar and Cain had failed to develop, those spots might have been issues, anyway.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Too many current GMs are afraid of trading prospects, afraid of making deals that will come back to “haunt” them. Well, the idea isn’t to win the Baseball America organizational rankings. The idea is to win the World Series.

Three years ago, the Tigers traded six players to the Marlins for third baseman Miguel Cabrera and left-hander Dontrelle Willis. The Marlins received the two jewels of the Tigers’ farm system, center fielder Cameron Maybin and left-hander Andrew Miller. Both flopped and were traded this offseason.

Prospects are fine, but Doug Melvin needs players.

He’s getting one of the best.