A few years ago, Bill James told me something I had never thought about before but now think about all the time, especially after trades like this one: Every single baseball team has prospects. Every one. The best teams. The worst teams. The smartest teams. The dumbest teams. They all have prospects. Not only that — every team has enough prospects to fill out a Top10 list. You never see a team’s “Top 7 Prospects” list because the team did not not have enough to fill out 10. No. They all have 10.
Not only THAT but every year Baseball America puts out its wonderful and indispensable prospect handbook — and every team has THIRTY prospects listed. Even the worst minor league system of the last 30 years will produce 30 prospects in the Baseball America book.
This is worth remembering. Sunday, the Milwaukee Brewers traded four young players — all four, I think, still fit the definition of “prospect” — to Kansas City for Zack Greinke. The Royals also moved one of my favorite blog topics, Yuniesky Betancourt, to Milwaukee in the deal. The Royals have now traded away or released three of my favorite blog topics — Greinke, Betancourt and Brian Bannister. Hmm. It’s almost like they don’t want me writing about them anymore.*
*Though the Royals were nice enough to pick up Jeff Francoeur, who will probably inspire a post or two.
The Royals got prospects* from Milwaukee, but that in and of itself means nothing. See: Prospects mean nothing. Every team has them. The question from Kansas City’s perspective is this: Did they get PLAYERS who can help them win? I have spent the day asking baseball friends that very question. The answers are mixed. This trade, from Kansas City’s perspective, is complicated and foggy and, in the end, probably pretty unsatisfying (if you’re a Royals fan). We’ll get to all that in a minute.
*Technically, I suppose, Escobar and Cain might not fit the description of “prospect” because they both have enough Major League time that they will not be considered rookies in 2011. But I’m using the term loosely here as players you might expect to be significantly better as they mature and develop. Neither Escobar or Cain have proven anything on the big league level yet.
The trade from Milwaukee’s perspective, I think, is easy to categorize. It is glorious. Yes, they did deal four interesting young players — 24-year-old shortstop Alcides Escobar , 25-year-old (in April) centerfielder Lorenzo Cain, 23-year-old reliever Jeremy Jeffress and 21-year-old (in March) pitcher Jake Odorizzi — and yes they now appear stuck with Yuni Betancourt as their every day shortstop, and yes their farm system is now utterly depleted (though I’ll bet they still have 30 prospects in the Baseball America book).
But they got one of the best pitchers in baseball in Greinke, a pitcher who quite possibly will be more dominant in the National League without having to face the designated hitter and as many stacked lineups (also Greinke fashions himself quite a hitter and will now get to prove it).Greinke now gets together with my breakout pick of 2011 Yovani Gallardo*, the promising Shaun Marcum and the still sometimes good Randy Wolf. It’s not the Phillies rotation by a longshot, but it’s pretty darned good, and with a lineup that finished fourth in the NL in runs in 2010, they certainly come into the season as serious contenders in the NL Central.
*Hey, my last two breakout picks were Zack Greinke and Ubaldo Jimenez so in this, and this alone, I have a pretty good record.
Perhaps just as important: The Brewers are clearly serious about winning. They’ve got Prince Fielder coming up on the end of his contract. They have not been in the World Series in almost 30 years — only Seattle, Pittsburgh and Cubs have had a longer drought (and the Washington Nationals if you count their Expos years). The win now approach can be deadly if you are not in the right position, but the National League Central is not a great division, the Brewers are just a couple of years removed from a 90-win season, and if they don’t win they have no shot at keeping Fielder to go with Braun as one of the best back-to-back hitters in the league. Getting Greinke seems to me a pretty serious victory for the Brewers, especially when you consider they did not give up a single player who would have been on anybody’s list of, say, the 25 or 50 or even 100 best young players in baseball.
And this is the point I’ll keep coming back to as we move on to the Royals: Milwaukee didn’t give up a single player likely to become a star. Zack Greinke is a star. He’s under control at a pretty good price for two years. Of course things can happen. Greinke can get hurt. Greinke can disappoint. Greinke can not fit in. Or the Brewers may find that winning with Yuniesky Betancourt as an every day shortstop is no easy trick. But you always take your chances on a trade. This one seems to me very likely to be a huge victory for Milwaukee. That’s the crux of my Milwaukee opinion.
The Royals side is quite a bit harder to break down. It begins with some recent history.
Over the last 10 or so years, the Royals have built up an annoying but predictable pattern. They develop a star player and then trade him away. This began in 2000 when the Royals traded away Johnny Damon. They had done many things to help Damon feel at home in Kansas City. They actually bought him a house in town. They made him their face in the community. In 2000, Damon led the league in runs scored and stolen bases. When the season ended, he made it clear that unless the Royals intended to make a huge financial commitment to build a winner, he did not want to stay. The Royals traded him away. Damon still gets booed when he comes to Kansas City.
Two years later, it was Jermaine Dye — coming off the year when, improbably, he started the All-Star Game. It is hard to imagine a Royals player ever again starting the All-Star game. Oh it will happen, but who knows when? Dye was not a homegrown product — he had come from Atlanta — but he did find stardom in Kansas City. He too seemed about ready to price himself out. And just as that was about to happen, the Royals dealt him for Neifi Perez in what was probably the most disastrous trade in team history.
Finally, there was Carlos Beltran, probably the only true five tool player the Royals farm system has ever developed (though George Brett was certainly a complete player, and Bo Jackson was a phenomenon). Beltran could hit, hit with power, he’s still the most successful base stealer in baseball history, he’s won multiple Gold Gloves in center field. He made it clear that he intended to go with the best deal when he became a free agent. The Royals knew they weren’t going to give him the best deal. They decided to trade him for a third baseman and a catcher — they made this clear before making the trade. They ended up getting John Buck and Mark Teahen.
Why bring up that background? Because the bulk of Kansas City fans have lost faith in the system. They know, absolutely know, that as soon as a player gets good he will be traded. It is simply a fact of Kansas City life. And not only will he be traded, but he will be traded for players that average baseball fans have never heard of.
So … the Greinke trade comes as no surprise in Kansas City. It also comes as no surprise that the four players they got in return are complete unknowns except to the most intense of baseball fans. The Royals will say that the four players are good prospects, and they have upside, and this may be true. In Kansas City, though, these words have mostly lost their meaning. The future has been Kansas City’s promotional tool for a long time now. And yet the future never gets any closer.
I have spent much of Sunday talking to friends in baseball, getting scouting reports of the four players in the deal … and individually all the players have both promise and rather obvious flaws:
— Shortstop Alcides Escobar: He’s a by all accounts a gifted athlete with above average speed and brilliant defensive ability. There are even those who think he will eventually hit. He was a good enough prospect last year that the Brewers dealt away J.J. Hardy and made him everyday shortstop. But in his first year, he did not hit a lick (.235/.288/.326). His 67 OPS+ — well, not many hitters in baseball history have rebounded from that to have a good offensive career. Ozzie Smith did. Terry Pendleton did. Not many others. Escobar also did not put up especially good defensive numbers, if you put any stock in those. The upside for Escobar is as a superior defensive shortstop who will get on base enough to steal bases and be an offensive plus. But that’s certainly no guarantee and his future is further clouded as numerous scouts question Escobar’s work ethic and motivation.
— Centerfielder Lorenzo Cain: Nobody questions Cain’s motivation, he seems to be a terrific athlete with even better makeup. The two names I heard most often in comparison are Denard Span and Torii Hunter, a couple of Twins centerfielders who the Royals have jealously gawked at the last few years. Cain, though, turns 25 in April, and his minor league march has been slow and uneven and injury plagued. He has only played 22 games in Class AAA. He has shown absolutely no power and only average plate discipline. He has the speed and instincts to be a fabulous defensive center fielder, which he could really show off in the enormous outfield at Kauffman Stadium.
— Right-handed pitcher Jeremy Jeffress has a great arm — he has been clocked at 100, and he worked 94-to-98 mph. His problem has been control — both on and off the field. He has twice been suspended for testing positive for marijuana. You can pass your own judgments on that, but at the very least the second positive test suggests a player who has not taken his career very seriously. One more positive test, and he’s banned for life. And in the minors he walked 188 batters in 306 innings, though his command came on enough in 2010 that one baseball executive said it “improved dramatically.” He appears to be a reliever now — especially because he has not found an effective third pitch. You never know exactly how relievers with great stuff and questionable command will do.
— Right-handed pitcher Jake Odorizzi is probably not worth spending too much time on right now — he’s still years away. He pitched well in Low A, and some of the people I spoke with like him, think he projects as a No. 3 starter. Others aren’t excited by his stuff and think he will struggle as he moves up in competition. There’s no telling for sure with a pitcher in Class A.
And so, those are the four guys — and you probably notice the same thing I do: There are no potential stars in the group. Not one. Oh, someone like Cain could emerge as a star, but it would be a surprise. The Royals got two players who figure to start in 2011, and a reliever who could have a significant role in the bullpen too. So they will get some production out of this deal. But there’s nothing exciting here. Zack Greinke is one of the most exciting pitchers in baseball. He’s one of the most exciting pitchers ever developed in Kansas City. And he’s gone.
There is definite logic behind what the Royals did. The Royals have the best minor league system in baseball — that seems to be the unanimous opinion — and so the plan is to be successful in 2012 and 2013. This trade helps fill in some missing pieces. The Royals were intensely weak defensively up the middle — now with Escobar (assuming they can motivate him) and Cain, they have a chance to make up-the-middle defense a real strength. The Royals farm system is loaded with high-end power hitters to play the corners — remember the names Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers (who may still be a catcher but is more likely an outfielder) — and so this move potentially gives the team speed that it otherwise lacks. The two arms they got can both be helpful and added to the truckload of good arms the Royals have in the minors. Royals GM Dayton Moore is a big believer that a team like Kansas City needs TOO MUCH young pitching because pitchers are so fragile, both from a health standpoint and a confidence standpoint.
So, from that point of view, it’s easy to understand why the Royals made the trade. And it’s easy to see what they hope to get out of it. There’s no way to say right now that this is a BAD deal because if Escobar and Cain are good big league players for the next few years and key middle-of-the-field contributors, then the trade could work out fine.
But … two days ago the Royals were on top of the baseball world. For once, they had a chip that nobody else had — they had a young and talented pitcher with an affordable contract. They had rich teams out there with HUGE motivation to make a deal. The Yankees and Rangers had lost out in the Cliff Lee sweepstakes. The New York Mets should be desperate to make a push considering how good the Phillies look. The Toronto Blue Jays are desperate to stay tough in the most competitive division in baseball. And so on. The Royals, for one of the few times in the last decade or two, were in the eye of baseball’s hurricane. They had what lots and lots of teams wanted.
And, from an outside perspective, there was no rush to make a trade. Yes, Zack Greinke had made it clear he wanted to be traded … he even switched agents. But so what? The Royals have him under control for two years. Greinke would have had to understand — and if not understand, certainly accept — that the Royals were trying to get the best deal for him. Why deal him now? Why not let the price build and build, as it certainly would. Why make a deal without a potential superstar return? What was the hurry?
Certainly the Royals know more about the situation than anyone else. Maybe they were worried about Greinke causing problems if they waited too long. Maybe they were worried about how he would pitch in a Royals uniform this year. Maybe they knew Greinke would simply refuse to go to any of the teams that could offer them more than Milwaukee did, and so they made the best deal they could make.
But it’s curious. And after the long history of Royals botching these sorts of trades — though it should be said the previous deals were not Dayton Moore’s — there’s a lot of room for doubt here. Kansas City got four prospects Sunday and they may work out. They may not. Everybody’s got prospects. But now only Milwaukee has Zack Greinke.