There are always rumors swirling in baseball.    They are entertaining, intriguing, thought-provoking and, usually, unfounded.   The weekend tidbit that the Royals were ‘willing to listen’ on Zack Greinke via Buster Olney seems a little different.

This nugget has the feel of something actually coming out of the Royals’ organization.   A sort of heads up that Kansas City has moved from ‘we will have to have our socks blown off by an offer’ mode to ‘we are willing to actually discuss reasonable trade offers’ mode.

As some commenters over Royals Review accurately pointed out, the strategy is to let the dust settle from what should be a spirited courting of Cliff Lee and then start talking to the losers of those negotiations.   When second choice on the free agent market this year is Jorge de la Rosa, the appeal of Zack Greinke will be great.

Last May, I (and I was hardly the first) brought up the idea of trading Greinke in this post.   We looked at the Roy Halladay trade and the two recent trades of Cliff Lee – prior to the third trade to the Rangers this past July.

That discussion associated with that column ended up being more on the actual players being acquired and whether they were the number four or number six prospect, which was not really the point.   Taking the names out of the equation, both Lee and Halladay returned basically three top ten prospects.  

Both those pitchers are older than Zack, both were in less team friendly contracts than Zack and both were, frankly, better than Zack.   That is to not devalue Greinke at all, just to make the point that all factors considered, it would seem that Greinke, Lee and Halladay would all have similar trade values.

We will add two more names to the mix:  Erik Bedard and Johan Santana.   The Orioles traded Bedard in February of 2008 to Seattle and received five players in return. 

Adam Jones was the big name of the five and while his talent is undeniable, he has put up a line of .274/.324/.434 in the three seasons since the trade.  Jones turned twenty-five in August, so he is just entering his prime.  

Also acquired was reliever George Sherill, who gave the Orioles a season and one-half of quality closing before they traded him to the Dodgers for third base prospect Josh Bell.   Although unspectacular in his limited duty in 2010, Bell is still highly thought of – at least by Baltimore.

Three other pitchers were part of the Bedard deal.   Chris Tillman was player number three in the deal and has started 23 games over the past two seasons and compiled a 5.61 earned run average.   He won’t turn twenty-three until next April.    Tony Butler was just twenty when acquired, but has yet to make it out of A ball.   Kameron Kraig Mickolio has tossed 25 relief innings over the past three seasons for Baltimore with mixed results.

Johan Santana was traded to the Mets for four players:  Deolis Garcia, Carlos Gomez, Philip Humber and Kevin Mulvey.   The Twins put up with Gomez for a year than flipped him for shortstop J.J. Hardy and this past summer traded Kevin Mulvey for reliever Jon Rauch.   Garcia is still just twenty-one and reached AAA last year, but has not posted an ERA below 4.69 since 2006, while Humber is, well, a Royal now.

In a roundabout way, the Twins traded the best pitcher in baseball (at the time) for an a decent major league shortstop, a very good back of the bullpen reliever and a young pitcher with a ton of upside.   

Meanwhile the Orioles traded ‘their Greinke’ (although Zack is almost certainly better than Bedard ever was) for a major league average outfielder with potential, a third base prospect, a young starting pitcher with upside and a couple more arms that haven’t shown much.

As I write this, it dawns on me that I ignored the Indians trade of C.C. Sabathia to the Brewers.   The Indians netted Matt LaPorta, Zach Jackson, Rob Bryson and Michael Brantley out of that deal.    It is hard to judge how Cleveland fared, but they did get eight players for Lee and Sabathia, most of whom will be on their major league roster next year.

Now, all the above does is give you an idea of what other number one pitchers have returned in trade value and also point out just how unsure a proposition is that includes mostly prospects.   Trading Greinke makes sense given his lack of focus pitching for a non-contending team and comments regarding his skepticism (however well founded they are ) in the process. 

Basically, if the Royals do not beleive they can resign Zack after 2012 and do not believe they will contend until 2013, then trading Greinke is the smart thing to do.   Simple math tells you that trading him now, with two full years remaining on his contract, will return more value than trading him with one and one-half years remaining or less.

There is no need to panic.   The Royals do not HAVE to trade Greinke right now, but it may will turn out that they will trade him prior to next season.   It all makes sense, as long as you don’t end up with handful of Tony Butlers and Philip Humbers.