Monday, November 24, 2008


When I wrote about the impact of the Mike Jacobs trade, I planned to include a sentence about how the trade was really just window dressing for this off-season, that it was just a distraction from the really important things that might or might not happen. “The Jacobs trade has nothing to do with whether this off-season will prove to be successful or not,” I wanted to write. “All that really matters is whether Zack Greinke signs a long-term contract.”

And then, before I published, Bob Dutton reported that Greinke is in no rush to sign a long-term deal anytime soon, if at all.

There are a couple of possibilities as to what Zack really means when he says “I don’t need to get a long-term deal because I feel I’ll be able to pitch (well) and earn a long-term deal when I become a free agent.” As I see it, he could have made this comment for one of three reasons:

He’s posturing.

He sincerely wants to see if the Royals can build a winner before committing to a long term deal.

He’s just saying a bunch of legal boilerplate to hide the fact that he's already planning to leave town at the first opportunity.

Greinke may simply be posturing in an effort to get the most money in a long-term deal, which is certainly his right. For all of Zack’s personal issues, he’s never lacked for confidence in a baseball sense – one of the reasons he was so successful at such a young age was because he pitched fearlessly, changing speeds and throwing strikes like a seasoned veteran. He knows he’s good, and he may be willing to play chicken with the Royals to get the offer he feels he deserves.

It’s also quite possible that Greinke wants to see tangible evidence that the Royals are going to be a competitive team before he commits to them. This is the same guy who claimed he would rather spend the year on a competitive team in Double-A then play with the last-place Royals. The team’s incessant losing has sucked the life out of me at times, but at least I can just tune them out when things get really bad. I can only imagine how painful it would be to actually be a member of the team, to be one of the most talented pitchers in all of baseball, and have to suffer through the 2005 season like Greinke did.

It’s easy for you or I to say that he should feel lucky to get paid millions to play a kid’s game, but the choice here isn’t whether Greinke plays baseball for the Royals or for the Wichita Wranglers, like he did in 2006. The choice here is whether Greinke gets paid millions of dollars to play baseball for the Royals in 2011…or whether he gets paid millions of dollars to play baseball for another team that, by default, has a better chance of making the playoffs.

Reasons (1) and (2) are not mutually exclusive, and I think they’re both a factor here: I think Greinke isn’t willing to sign for under market value, and I think that he’s reluctant to commit to a franchise that hasn’t definitively proven that it’s committed to winning.

If there’s a silver lining here, I think that reason (3) is unlikely. The first parallel that came to mind when I read Greinke’s comments was to Carlos Beltran. Beltran, like Greinke, was someone I had long advocated the Royals needed to sign to a long-term contract, and like Greinke, the Royals dithered for so long that by the time they woke up to the reality that free agency was approaching, it was already too late. Beltran was similarly non-committal about a long-term deal after the 2002 season, and while everyone ignored the elephant in the room when the Royals were contending in 2003, after the season it was clear that Beltran was leaving one way or the other.

I think that Greinke might be different, if for no other reason than that his agent isn’t Scott Boras. The player controls the agent and not the other way around – or at least it shouldn’t be the other way around – but who a player chooses to represent him is usually a clue as to where his priorities are. If Greinke switches agents this winter, I might as well put my Greinke jersey on eBay right then and there. But for now, I’m prepared to take his comments at face value.

My optimistic side – some of you would call it my naïve side – thinks that, given Greinke’s documented battle with social anxiety disorder, he would be inclined to stay in a comfortable setting rather than risk moving to an unfamiliar and unforgiving milieu. Kansas City has treated him well, by and large. Both the organization and the fan base were very supportive of him when he broke down and left the team for a spell. The local media market is smaller and less intrusive than pretty much every other major league city, and the cracks about his love for Chipotle aside*, the media attention he does get is quite positive. I’d honestly be fearful for Greinke’s psychological well-being if he ended up in New York.

*: I eat at Chipotle at least once a week, so far be it from me to criticize his dietary habits. If anything, I think his fine taste in fast food cuisine should be commended. I did not, however, cry when Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston broke up.**

**: Does anyone really think Zack was being serious when he said he cried upon hearing the news? I think Zack has a wicked and sarcastic sense of humor, and I think he is so good at saying things deadpan that people don’t realize when he’s joking. He comes across as a simpleton at times, but I wonder if the joke’s really on us.

No one thought Beltran was a good fit for New York either, given that he’s a very introverted and quiet player for a superstar, and he ended up with the Mets. But again, Beltran’s agent is Scott Boras. And Beltran has been quoted at least once as second-guessing his decision to take the highest offer on the table and move to New York.

So I do think that despite these comments, Greinke may still be amenable to signing a long-term deal, and that the suggestions from fans that the Royals should look to cash him now are waaaaay premature.

There remains a fourth possibility, which I really don’t want to acknowledge, but I have no choice:

4) The Royals already made a long-term contract offer to Greinke, but they low-balled him so egregiously that Greinke decided to go public with his displeasure.

I’d like to discount this possibility, but with the Royals you can never be sure. As I’ve indicated before, and as Dutton also pointed out in his column, the parameters of an acceptable Greinke contract are already largely in place, thanks to the four-year deal that Scott Kazmir signed during the season.

On May 14th, Kazmir inked a 3-year, $28.5 million contract extension with the Rays, effective from 2009 to 2011, which bought out his first year of free agency; the Rays also have an option for 2012 at $11 million. (Technically the contract is 3/26 with a $13.5 million option and a $2.5 million buyout, but it’s equivalent and simpler to list it as 3/28.5 with an $11 million option.)

Kazmir and Greinke are very different pitchers, but they’re also very comparable. They’re about the same age (Greinke is about 3 months older), and more germane to our discussion, they have equivalent service time, both being four-plus players this winter. Kazmir is a power lefthander with control issues and Greinke is a power righthander with homer issues, but in terms of overall value they’re very similar. Kazmir had a 3.49 ERA this season; Greinke had a 3.47 ERA.

Kazmir has the better overall career numbers, as he doesn’t have a season like 2005 on his resume and didn’t miss almost all of 2006, but Greinke had the better 2008 – in large part because he threw over 200 innings while Kazmir missed the start of the year with an elbow strain and was limited to 27 starts and 152 innings. They both have relatively fresh arms, Greinke because he missed much of 2006 for non-arm-related issues, Kazmir because the Rays have been extremely cautious with his pitch counts. (He has never thrown more than 121 pitches in a game, and with his command issues this year, the Rays limited him to 5.64 innings a start to keep his pitch counts down.

If you polled 100 baseball men as to who they’d rather have over the next four years, I doubt you’d get a split wider than 60/40 in either pitcher’s direction. I’d rather have Greinke, because his recent performance is better (and coincided with an increase in velocity) and because I’m more certain that he will stay healthy, but I’m hardly an unbiased observer.

So is Greinke asking for more than Kazmir money? If he is, I can’t imagine it’s all that much more. On the one hand, Kazmir signed in the middle of his fourth season, more than 2 ½ years from free agency, while Greinke now stands just two years away. (Mind you, I’ve been advocating that the Royals sign Greinke to a Kazmir-like contract pretty much since the ink dried.) On the other hand, with the economy cratering, the usual hyperinflation that characterizes the free-agent market is unlikely to manifest itself this year.

If Kazmir got 4/39.5, I’d think that Greinke would hope for something in the range of 4/44, or basically the last four years of Gil Meche’s contract. If he’s willing to sign for that, the Royals should have a contract on his agent’s desk by the time this paragraph is over.

Dayton Moore has made a lot of moves over the last two years that I have disagreed with, some vehemently so. But in every case I have at least understood the rationale behind his decisions. Nothing is more exasperating as a sports fan than when your team makes a decision that defies any rationale. It’s better to make a decision for a bad reason than for no reason at all. When your team does something that can not possibly be explained using the accepted standards of logic – like trading Jermaine Dye for Neifi Perez, or announcing to the world that you have begun a rebuilding phase by trading your best young player – you just want to rip your hair out.

While admittedly I’m not privy to the personal discussions between Moore and Greinke, his decision to not make signing Greinke to a long-term deal a top priority until now is utterly inexplicable. Maybe he’s trying to sign Greinke as we speak, and maybe he isn’t. But there’s little question that Moore did not make a serious effort until after this season was over. Greinke himself was quoted during the season as saying that the Royals had yet to approach him about a long-term deal, and I have heard nothing through the grapevine to contradict this. This nonchalance, this laissez-faire attitude towards the best young player the Royals have developed since Beltran is just mystifying.

There’s been some talk that Moore has a policy against negotiating long-term contracts in mid-season, a policy that was apparently waived for Joakim Soria because Soria himself approached the team. But if that’s a policy, Dayton, it’s a silly one. And even if it’s not, some players are so talented that they warrant exceptions to any policy. Zack Greinke has exceptional command of exceptional stuff – the last six words apply to maybe a dozen pitchers in the world today, certainly no more than a dozen under the age of 30. There’s a very real possibility that, a decade from now, Greinke will be considered the greatest pitcher ever developed by the Royals. (Sounds like a topic for a future column.)

But if that happens, right now it looks like there’s a good chance that the best years of the greatest pitcher ever developed by the Royals will be for the benefit of another team. And there’s no excuse for this. Baird didn’t get Beltran signed to a long-term deal, but as it happens, it wasn’t for lack of trying, or even for lack of succeeding – negotiations with Beltran were proceeding well until factors outside of Baird’s control intervened. (The more I learn about the Allard Baird Era, the more I’m convinced that the Allard Baird Era was not the fault of Allard Baird.) But Moore doesn’t appear to be even trying.

We strive to avoid hoary clichés here at Rany on the Royals, but George Santayana’s statement holds true here: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. You’d think the Royals would have remembered what happened when they didn’t sign Beltran to a long-term deal, or Dye, or Johnny Damon. You’d think they could look around the league and notice that this year, four years after Beltran was traded, seven after Dye was traded, eight after Damon was traded, all three of them are still playing at an All-Star caliber. Damon hit .303/.375/.461 with 29 steals; Dye hit .292/.344/.541 and got some MVP votes; Beltran hit .284/.376/.500 with 25 steals and also got a few votes.

Not that it’s realistic to think the Royals could have kept all three, but if they had, the 2000s Royals would have had one of the greatest outfields in the history of baseball. Instead, they traded all three, and all they have to show for them right now is Mark Teahen and John Buck.

So yeah, you’d think that the Royals would have learned that when you have a star player in his mid-20s, you need to do everything you can to lock him up long-term before it’s too late. But I guess what happened on Baird’s watch is no concern of Moore’s. To borrow an expression once said about my people, the Royals never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

(Feel free to bring up Mike Sweeney if you want. Just remember that Sweeney, as a first baseman and a right-handed line-drive hitter, had a much riskier profile than any of the outfielders. And even so, I still would argue that his contract was a good idea at the time; no one could have predicted that Sweeney’s back would give out like it did.)

Again, I don’t have the best viewpoint for what’s going on, and for all I know the Royals are putting the finishing touches on a contract that will keep Greinke in Kansas City well into the next decade. And it may well be that one of the primary reasons that Moore traded for Crisp and (especially) Jacobs – rather than going with an unproven hitter like Ka’aihue – was to show Greinke that the Royals are committed to surrounding him with enough talent to win, not in 2011 or 2012, but next year.

If that’s the case, let me be the first to toast Moore for completing the single most important transaction he could have made this offseason. Because no matter how many Mike Jacobs trades Moore botches this winter, if he signs Greinke to a long-term deal, this off-season will have been a success.

And no matter how many Coco Crisp trades he wins, if Moore doesn’t sign Greinke to a long-term deal, this off-season will have been a failure.