The last time the Royals had a truly elite level player out on the open market, it was Carlos Beltran.  They traded him, after all the dust settled, for Chris Getz.

Okay, that is truly funky analysis, I know.   In between Mark Teahen being traded for Getz and Josh Fields (and Fields subsequently being non-tendered), the Royals did get 90 home runs and 700 games out of John Buck.   They also got basically league average OPS+ for another 750 games from Teahen and, heck, even Mike Wood gave the club some adequate moments here and there.   Still, when you trade an elite player, you would like his long term impact on your organization to be something more than an unproven 27 year old second baseman.

So, as the Winter Meetings open today, and the Zack Greinke trade speculation really kicks into high gear, Dayton Moore finds himself with an elite level pitcher in a market basically devoid of said type.   Whether directly or indirectly or, for that matter, whether accurate or not, the public perception is that Greinke would like to be traded.   He was also a guy who, quite frankly, spent a portion of the 2010 season in a disinterested state of mind (who among us can say otherwise?!).

Saddled with those negatives, Moore can point to a load of positives as he heads into the treacherous trade waters.   First off, Greinke is young and just one season removed from one of the more dominating pitching seasons of the last fifteen years.   His talent is undeniable and Greinke’s contract is team friendly through the 2012 season.  Truthfully, if you put Zack Greinke on a contending team, it would be a surprise if he was anything but focuses and ultra-competitive.  

In a market where Jayson Werth gets seven years and $126 million, what sort of value does Greinke hold?   I will guarantee you it is well above the $27 million is he scheduled to earn over the next two seasons.

So, if you are Dayton Moore, what is the realistic return for Zack Greinke?   In the past several years, we have seen the likes of Johan Santana, C.C. Sabathia, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee all traded – Lee three time actually, so the return on an ace pitcher is not exactly a mystery.     On the Royals’ side, they have the advantage of having Greinke under contract for longer and a younger age than any of the other aces that were moved.   Sabathia was basically the same age when Cleveland traded him to Milwaukee, but had just half a season left on his deal.

I have done a couple of columns on some of the ‘ace’ trades before and you can easily get the details on each by heading over to Baseball Reference and pulling up the individual player pages and draw your own conclusions.   That said, here is a rough idea of what would be a realistic return on a Greinke trade:

  • This Offseason – Three Top Five prospects (one of which is major league ready now) and one high risk/high ceiling secondary prospect.   It is very possible that the ‘one major league ready’ prospect could actually be an actual major league player and still get two additional Top Five prospects plus the secondary guy.  I think that scenario demands some sort of contract extension being worked out with Zack as part of the trade.
  • July, 2011 – In my mind, losing half a season of control over Greinke is equal to losing one prospect, but maybe just the high risk/high reward type player.   Probably you still get three Top Five types.
  • Off-Season 2011 – This is problematical.   If the Royals are horrible in 2011, the idea that they have to trade Greinke will be rampant throughout baseball.   The club also runs the risk of Zack having another ‘okay, but not great’ season.   Of course, the Royals could have a strong second half with some of their young guys up and playing well and realistically talk about keeping Greinke for 2012 and maybe beyond.   I would say the haul is likely to be three Top Ten prospects at this point.
  • July 2012 – Are the Royals any good at this point or not?   Are they close enough to being good to convince Greinke to sign a new contract?   Which Zack is pitching at this point, version 2009 or version 2010?    Those questions point out the gamble of waiting on Greinke.

It is possible that Zack Greinke is worth more in the future than he is right now, but it is equally possible he could be worth less.  Truth is the Royals will emerge from this week’s meetings knowing exactly what Zack is worth right now.   If that ‘worth’ is enough to the pull the trigger, then avoiding the risk of holding onto Greinke and dealing with all the variables that might present themselves in the future is the safest bet.

Now, back to the Beltran deal.   If the Royals trade Zack this winter, the absolutely must parlay that return into the type of return that will have a positive impact on the organization for years.   At minimum, the club needs the following out of the Greinke package:

  • A pitcher that will be a legitimate top three member of the starting rotation.  Plus, an ace must emerge from either this pitcher, or someone from the group of  Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, Danny Duffy, Chris Dwyer and Aaron Crow.   Further, another member of this group of five plus the ‘new guy’, also has to be a top three type pitcher.    Basically, I’m saying that from the five pitchers already in the organization plus the top end prospect gained from the trade, must account for the top three spots in the Royals’ rotation by 2013 and occupy those top three spots legitimately (i.e. be top three pitchers on pretty much any staff, not just Kansas City’s).
  • One of the positional prospects acquired has to become a good, maybe even great, everyday player.     I am looking for the ‘Grady Sizemore’ guy in the Bartolo Colon trade. 
  • Another prospect has to become a ‘above league average’ everyday player.

Frankly, as you look at the Colon trade back in 2002, the Royals almost have to get a Cliff Lee, a Grady Sizemore and a Brandon Phillips for it to ‘feel’ like a win.   That is asking a lot from a GM who has not always had the greatest of luck in the trade market.   Truthfully, I am not sure there has ever been quite a prospect for pitcher trade as great as the Colon move and it is probably unwise to hold whatever the Royals do with Greinke to that standard.

Still, the Royals need to aim high, but not stupid high at the Winter Meetings.   There is a lot of risk and uncertainty going forward with Greinke and taking a chance on hitting a Colon-type lottery is probably Dayton Moore’s best move.   It might not be popular and it might completely blow up in the organization’s face, but there might not be a better market for Greinke than there is right now.

Hold on everyone, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.