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Zack Greinke is the Best Pitcher in Baseball

June 12, 2011 1 comment

Milwaukee’s own Zack Greinke (6-1; 4.69 ERA) is 6-1 for only the second time in his seven year baseball career.  The other time he was 6-1, the BBWAA gave him the award pictured above.  Equipment producer Mizuno gave him this.

However, no one is throwing a parade in a plaza for Greinke this time around.  Back in 2009, Greinke was sitting on a 0.50 ERA at this point, and could be considered a hard luck 6-1.  This time, NL opponents have scored 26 times off Greinke already.  But the differences are remarkable.  Greinke is stranding the lowest rate of baserunners in his career: 63.0%.  He is suffering from a flyball tendency in a way he has not struggled with since his formative days in Kansas City.  Greinke’s BABIP has soared over his last two starts (both wins) to .344 on the season.  And the reasoning for all those problems resulting in a 4.69 ERA instead of something more resembling the numbers he put up in Kansas City is exclusively related to the homerun ball.

Greinke has allowed six homers this year, including yesterday.  And those homers haven’t been of the common, solo variety either.  They’ve been potential back-breakers to the Brewers chances.  It’s a combination of the opponents being able to get the ball in the air, having runners on base against Greinke when it happens (Greinke is allowing a fraction over a baserunner per inning, so this has to regress at some point), and the Brewers defense simply not getting to balls in play.

But Greinke could care less about that ERA stat.  For the first time in his career, he plays for a team that bails him out by way of run support.  And Greinke himself, who has already scored twice this year, including the game tying run yesterday on a Rickie Weeks go-ahead 6th inning homer, is now part of that run support equation.  It’s really made all the difference for him to go for hoping to get 2 or 3 runs to work with from the Royals offense, and not even getting that at times, to being able to give up 3, 4, or even 5 runs in a start, and still find a way to be pitching from ahead deep in the game.

It is not probable, but it is possible, that Zack Greinke could do the whole career high in games won this season despite missing roughly five starts due to a DL stint for a fractured rib in March/April.  Greinke lost his first start coming off the DL in Atlanta, but having pitched at home in Miller Park in all but one of his next seven starts, the Brewers have managed to win each one of those seven games, now the longest single-season winning streak in games started by Zack Greinke (he had a longer one lasting from September 2008-May 2009).

Two years ago, there was a situation revolving around the all-star game starting pitcher, which Greinke had clearly identified as either himself or Toronto’s Roy Halladay.  Two years later, we can wonder if anything has really changed.  Greinke is in the National League, as is Halladay.  Cliff Lee is a pitching leaderboard mainstay.  Felix Hernandez also has a Cy Young award to show for his efforts.  One of those four pitchers has to be the best pitcher in baseball.

The majority would probably sat that Halladay is still the best.  It’s hard to disagree.  Greinke probably wouldn’t disagree.  Look at the year to year production.  Roy Halladay is still the toughest pitcher to beat in a major league game.

The only group of people I might think of that could disagree is National League hitters.  Collectively, I don’t know if there’s a group out there who has less success than NL hitters against Greinke.  60 players have struck out against Greinke this year.  56 players have reached base against Greinke this year.  If dominance for a pitcher is represented by those two numbers even being close (like they were in 2009 for Greinke, or they have been for Halladay throughout his career), the pace Greinke is on in 2011 is nothing short of historic.

There’s just no reason to think he can keep that pace up.  Unless, of course, you believe that Greinke is better than he was in 2009.  I’m not saying he is.  I’m also not saying he isn’t.  What I am saying is, from the perspective of hitters alone, putting aside his value to an organization or all-star credentials or other distractions, Zack Greinke is the most dangerous pitcher in baseball to face, and also possibly the very best.

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LBS 2011 MLB Preview: NL Central

March 29, 2011 1 comment

The cream of the NL Central division could prove to be the team best suited to win the playoffs this year.  There’s a problem though: like the 2010 Giants, the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers are better built to win in short series with frontline pitching rather than win over an entire season with strong defense and hitting.  The runs will be there, but the defense could keep the Brewers from the NL Central title, and it’s unlikely that the perpetually weak NL Central can send two teams to the playoffs.

1) Milwaukee Brewers (projected finish: 90-72)

In a year where the Brewers absolutely have what it takes to win it all, there is also considerable opportunity for disappointment.  Despite pitchers Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Shaun Marcum, and Randy Wolf, the Brewers still figure to give up a lot of runs to opposing hitters.  They are weak defensively right up the middle, from catcher all the way into the outfield, and neither Ryan Braun or Corey Hart is going to cover enough ground in the outfield to make up for the flyball tendencies of that pitching staff.  That means a lot of extra base hits, and don’t even get me started about Yuni Betancourt at SS.

Fortunately for the Brewers, this appears to be a down year in a down division.  The offseason favorite Cardinals lost their best pitcher, Adam Wainwright, for the season, and Albert Pujols may be in a bit of decline, if only because no one ever had the run Pujols did between 2003-09.  For the most improved team in the division, the time is now to strike whilst the iron is hot.  The Brewers must be aware of baseball’s recent history: three years ago the Detroit Tigers traded most of their upper farm system to the Florida Marlins for 1B Miguel Cabrera and LHP Dontrelle Willis, and were the trendy pick to win it all in the offseason.  They lost their first eight games of the season, and didn’t reach the .500 mark until July.

Zack Greinke is out maybe until May Day with a fractured rib, a non-baseball related injury.  The Brewers will need the big sticks of Rickie Weeks, Prince Fielder, Hart, and Braun to get them through a tough first month, and hope to not take on any more injuries.  As easily as the lack of depth on the Brewers could derail the team’s playoff hopes before they get started, their frontline ability offers plenty of potential playoff heroes.  If and when the Brewers get into the playoffs, the Phillies could meet their match at Miller Park in October.

2) St. Louis Cardinals (projected finish: 83-79)

Between the inability to reach a contract extension with Albert Pujols, and the loss of Wainright, it’s easy to say that no team had as rough a spring as did the St. Louis Cardinals, at least in terms of outcomes.  This projection would tie the fourth worst finish by the Cards since Tony LaRussa became their manager before the 1996 season.  The more the team loses, inevitably the more likely it becomes that Pujols and the Cardinals cannot agree on a deal and they part ways after the season.  Potentially, 2011 could be the end of the Cardinals as we recognize them.

Before we all collectively plan their funeral, if/when the Brewers stumble out of the gate, no team in the Central is better positioned to take the title than the Cardinals are.  Even with all the Pujols silliness that is bound to occur in the near-term future, the Cardinals have the strongest organizational infrastructure in the NL Central.  Though they don’t have the youth of the Reds, quantity of stars of the Brewers, or the financial resources of the Cubs, they always post one of the league’s best pitching staffs.  That’s something that should happen again this season, even without their best pitcher.

The Cardinals should be able to make up for the weakened rotation by getting quality innings out of their bullpen.  The rotation, however, should once again feature five pitchers at or below the 4.00 ERA line.  Led by the injury-prone Chris Carpenter, the Cardinals should win more than they lose in 2010 thanks to the middle of the order power of Pujols and Matt Holliday, and an increased reliance on the young bat of Colby Rasmus.  This team isn’t young, won’t be particularly healthy, and is over-reliant on Pujols, but all those things are relatively minor flaws by the standards of a major league baseball club.  At least in the short term, they should be fine.  After the season though, we’ll see if the Cardinals can stave off disaster with the odds stacked against them.

3) Cincinnati Reds (projected finish: 81-81)

Manager Dusty Baker was handed a team full of young prospects and odd pickups such as Scott Rolen and was tasked with the need to lead the Reds to the postseason in 2010, which is exactly what they did.  With all that young talent, Baker’s job could lie in his ability to lead the young team to take the next step.  My projection shows that another 162 games is a long time to try to hold off the savvy Cardinals, and this could be a down year for Baker and the Reds with the Brewers primed to make their move.

1B Joey Votto and RF Jay Bruce have become true middle of the order threats behind 2B Brandon Phillips in the Cincinnati lineup.  The Reds will look to challenge the Brewers to lead the NL Central in runs scored this year, a race that likely needs to be won in order to win the division this season.

The question, as it always is with Baker-led teams, is with the pitching staff.  Johnny Cueto is already being rationed with shoulder inflamation and Edison Volquez delivers the ball particularly violently at risk for serious arm injury.  Homer Bailey may not be the pitcher the Reds thought he was.  The big question from camp is what will come of left-handed flamethrower and Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman.  The Reds invested a ton of money in Chapman, and for the second straight year, he will come out of the bullpen.  The 2011 Reds may not be tied to him, but money spent on Chapman is money the Reds can’t use on Bruce or Votto, so this window of opportunity could be a two or three year deal.

4) Chicago Cubs (projected finish: 78-84)

The Cubs just endured a second straight disaster year under jettisoned manager Lou Pinella, replaced by Mike Quade.  The 2009 season came mostly as a surprise, but the Cubs 2010 season was derailed as much as anything by Pinella running out of ideas for his team really, really early in May.  The improvement under Quade was mostly — but not entirely a mirage — the Cubs are a bit better than they played in 2010.

Still, this won’t be a contending team because its one with one too many bad contracts.  Alphonso Soriano is still a productive hitter for now, but that’s a disaster contract with Kosuke Fukudome and his $12 million in the same outfield.  No one really knows what to expect from Aramis Ramirez at third base, except that he buys top prospect Josh Vitters another year to mature as a baseball player and professional.  The Cubs just dumped another bad contract, releasing P Carlos Silva who himself was acquired from Seattle in exchange for a bad contract belonging to OF/DH Milton Bradley.  And $10 million is a lot of money for Carlos Pena for a year, especially if the former Ray falls short of 30 HRs playing home games at hitter friendly Wrigley Field.  A Derrek Lee extension during a down season might have been a wiser investment.

It’s hard to see great upside in the 2011 Cubs, but they look a lot better on paper than their reputation as underachievers might suggest.  2012 will be a crucial year in the franchise calendar for the Cubs, but a 2nd place finish in 2011 would be a great finish under Quade in his first full season on the job.

5) Houston Astros (projected finish: 68-94)

The Astros somehow find themselves in worse position as a franchise every single year dating back to their World Series appearance in 2005, but have never lost more than 89 games in a season.  They’ll avoid 100 losses again this year because of spare talent on the major league roster, but they won’t avoid 90 losses this time.

Catcher Jason Castro could miss the season with a knee that required surgery.  Carlos Lee now enjoys an albatross contract, although his .246/.291/.417 line probably doesn’t spell the end for El Caballo, because Lee’s HRs/BBs/Ks were at normal rates last season.  Lee hit .300 5 out of 6 years prior to 2010 for four different organizations, so his batting average is bound to rise again, though perhaps not back to quite that level, and that will drag his on base percentage and slugging percentages with it.  He’s a good bet for another .800 OPS season this year.

If the Astros surprise (again) it will be on the pitching end of things where Brett Myers and Wandy Rodriguez are coming off of strong years, and young Bud Norris is posting excellent rate stats between trips to the disabled list.  That front three can take the Astros a lot of places if the offense can score for them.  Unfortunately, it’s unclear where the runs will come from.  If Lee remains the team’s biggest offensive threat, the Astros are in trouble in 2011.

6) Pittsburgh Pirates (projected finish: 60-102)

It’s hard to say if the Pirates are improving any as an organization because it’s taken so long for them to shed dead weight.  They do have a premier second baseman in Neil Walker, and a trio of potentially great prospects at third base in Pedro Alvarez (.256/.326/.461 in 2010) and in left field with Jose Tabata (.299/.346/.400 in 2010) and in center field with Andrew McCutchen (.286/.365/.449 in 2010).

The pitching staff is still very much under-staffed, which reminds us that the Pirates are still very far away from contention.  The Pirates butcher the ball on defense, which doesn’t make the jobs of the pitchers any easier.  Ross Ohlendorf and James McDonald are the best of the bunch right now, and neither is about to gather more victories than losses in their starts this year.

The Pirates are conceivably two years away, making all the right moves, with the lineup leading the way for the pitching staff, having a strong farm system, and some fortunate player acquisition opportunities.  It’s closer than the Pirates have been in a while, but likely not enough to avoid 100 losses in 2011.

LBS 2011 MLB Preview: AL Central

March 7, 2011 1 comment
SURPRISE, AZ - FEBRUARY 25:  Pitcher Luke Hochevar #44 of the Kansas City Royals poses for a portrait during Spring Training Photo Day on February 25, 2007 at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Arizona  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

LiveBall’s Previews of the 2011 MLB Season begins right in it’s own backyard with a look at the American League’s most tightly packed division, a worst to first description of all the contenders.  And, yes, the Indians and the Royals as well.

5) Cleveland Indians (projected finish: 66-96)

The Indians’ second rebuilding project since their appearance in the 2007 ALCS began much earlier than expected, and was officially brought in by the seemingly natural front office progression of the promotion of hotshot candidate Chris Antonetti to the role of General Manger, with former GM Mark Shapiro taking on the title of “President of Baseball Operations.”  That doesn’t make it immediately clear who will be doing what, but the Indians message for their fans is clear: it’s Antonetti’s show now.

Cleveland’s best asset is its deep farm system, although they lack the bevy of top prospects of the next team on this list.  They have two proven major league regulars in OF Chin-Soo Chu, and OF Grady Sizemore, another to-be regular in second year C Carlos Santana, and then will rely on whatever contributions slow-to-develop OF/1B Matt LaPorta and longtime DH Travis Hafner can give them.

That’s a decent core to build a team around, but unfortunately, it’s unlikely that Chu, Sizemore, or Hafner will be around for the next AL Central-contending Indians team.  LaPorta is increasingly less likely to develop as a power hitter as the weeks pass, and while Hafner rebounded in 2010 for his best season since 2007, he’s 34 now.

The Indians don’t have much by way of pitching, with the erratic Fausto Carmona at the top of their rotation, and the bullpen unsettled, to put it kindly.  This is a problem when you consider the lacking quality of the Indians’ team defense, notably at the hard to fill positions of centerfield, and shortstop.  Former Red Sox prospect Justin Masterson still has some potential to help the rotation, but the rest of the help may still be a year away.  The race for worst pitching staff in the AL Central between the Indians and Royals could be as fascinating as the farm-arms race that will occur between the two clubs in years to come.

4) Kansas City Royals (projected finish: 71-91)

Its going to be just one more year of bad baseball in Kansas City, although the real question is whether or not the product that follows 17 years of bad baseball was worth waiting for.  That’s hard to say.

The Royals could have competed in 2011, but would have needed to hold onto RF David DeJesus, and RHP Zack Greinke to do so, and probably would have needed to add a pricy bat or arm in free agency, and even then, the Royals would only have been a fringe contender for the AL Central.  That would have been more costly when you factor in the additional cost of keeping Greinke happy: holding on to veterans signed last year instead of shedding salary at the trading deadline of a non-competitive team.  Instead the team made the wise “money” move, and traded DeJesus and Greinke for whatever they could get, essentially ending the team’s hopes of competing this year before spring training started.  On the bright side, payroll is down under $35 million this year (thanks to the unexpected retirement of Gil Meche and his $12 million), and only Billy Butler has a guaranteed contract beyond this season.

The teams best player is closer Joakim Soria, but the real reason to expect the Royals to be better than last year despite losing their top position player and best pitcher is the quality of the teams defense.  The Royals were horrid last year at preventing runs in games not started by Greinke or Bruce Chen, and they were horrid despite some defense-independent pitching improvement from third starter Kyle Davies.  Brian Bannister has been jettisoned to Japan, Chen has been resigned, and the Royals added former Rockie left-hander Jeff Francis to replace Greinke.

The team defense will be the reason for improvement in the run prevention unit.  Going from Yuni Betancourt to Alcides Escobar at short is a two or three win upgrade, essentially the difference between Greinke and Francis.  Third base will be a defensive strength, at least until Mike Moustakas arrives in the majors (a day which no Royals fan is dreading), as will second with a continuation of a Chris Getz/Mike Aviles platoon.  First base will be average at best, but an Alex Gordon, Mitch Maier/Melky Cabrera/Lorenzo Cain, Jeff Francouer outfield has the potential to be the best defensive outfield in years for KC.  And that’s without stalwart defender DeJesus.

No matter what, an offense with Francouer, Jason Kendall, Melky Cabrera, Getz, Escobar, and possibly even Pedro Feliz is going to struggle to simply not be the lowest run producing offense in the AL (but thanks for trying, Seattle), and the bats the Royals will rely on this year don’t have a particularly impressive MLB track record (exception: Butler).  That’s why its a minority prediction to suggest the Royals will actually be closer to .500 than to 100 losses.  But improved team defense will make the rotation look better, and as long as Joakim Soria is healthy, the Royals will win a disproportional amount of close games, making this a justifiable prediction.

3) Detroit Tigers (projected finish: 79-83)

There’s plenty of optimism coming out of Lakeland this spring, if for a moment, we can ignore the fact that the team’s best player Miguel Cabrera has a serious issue with alcohol.  The latest bout isn’t career threatening, necessarily, but while similarity scores view him as a player who will be a star into his late thirties, that’s the kind of projection that could be cut short by alcohol abuse.  Cabrera was named the best hitter in baseball by LiveBall Sports last July, in the midst of Albert Pujols’ one seemingly human season in the last eight.  Cabrera hit better than Pujols in 2010, though not quite better than AL MVP Josh Hamilton, although their batting runs above average were practically identical.

The argument is not that Cabrera is the best player in baseball, as he’s a well below average defender at a non-premium position.  Pujols is a great defender, and a far superior baserunner as well.  Cabrera is the most dangerous player in baseball with a bat in his hands.  And alcohol threatens to shorten his run of dominance with the bat.

The Tigers will enter 2010 with the division’s best rotation, including Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, Brad Penny, and Max Scherzer, and they will have plenty of firearms in the bullpen as well.  Whether they actually finish the year with the best rotation in the division depends on the quality of work of White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, and the health of all these flamethrowers the Tigers employ.

The team’s biggest offseason acquisition was Catcher Victor Martinez, a legitimate middle of the order bat, if not the best defensive catcher on the team (that would be second year man, Alex Avila).  Both figure to see more than 350 PAs this year.  CF Austin Jackson and RF Magglio Ordonez will make up two thirds of the Tigers starting outfield, and Brandon Inge returns as the regular third baseman, but the rest of the lineup will be a series of unimpressive platoons and week-to-week sketch ups by manager Jim Leyland.  Inge and Jackson are both excellent defenders, and supersub Don Kelly’s glove will play at any position, but this is not a great defensive team, and Martinez won’t do anything to solve those issues.  Put simply, the bats must rank near the top of the AL for Detroit to win the AL Central.

2) Chicago White Sox (projected finish: 86- 78)

The White Sox should be better than last year for the same reason the Royals should be better than last year.  They made one huge improvement at the weakest position on the team.  Some of the plate appearances that were engulfed by Juan Pierre this year will belong to Adam Dunn, who should make his home nicely in the bandbox that is US Cellular Field.  A second improvement should come from rookie 3B Brent Morel, who if not an offensive improvement, will certainly provide defensive improvement to Mark Teahen and Dayan Viciedo.

The rotation of John Danks, Mark Buerhle, Gavin Floyd, Jake Peavy, and Edwin Jackson offers the deepest rotation in the AL, with the most potential upside of any rotation west of Tampa/east of Oakland.  Peavy, Floyd, and Jackson all offer value that is more speculative than the established contributions of Buerhle and Danks.

Unquestionably, however, the strength of the White Sox in the infield gives way to one of the thinnest outfields in the majors.  Left to right, the starters are Pierre, Alex Rios, and Carlos Quentin.  Quentin can’t play the field very well, but the Dunn acqusition makes him a full timer out there.  Rios was above average in center last year, but is still stretched kind of thin in center.  He’d offer more defensive value in a corner.  Pierre at least won’t be playing any DH this year, and played a good left field last season, but it’s not a position his bat can handle.  Teahen should see playing time in both left and right field.

If the staff and bullpen goes through the expected development and has the Sox competing near the top of the league in most pitching candidates, the Sox could be big-name buyers at the deadline on an outfielder.  They should be in this race longer than the Tigers, but without additional help in the lineup, the White Sox are destined to come up short, and in a worst case scenario, could find themselves selling at the deadline.

1) Minnesota Twins (projected finish: 90-72)

The Twins remain one of the best teams in baseball.  They were able to retain key contributors Jim Thome and Carl Pavano from their free agent class.  There are only two troubling things about this Twins team: first, that Justin Morneau still isn’t asymptomatic from a concussion suffered last July.  Secondly, that without Morneau, the Twins will play a very, very watered down group of infielders, one that will be tough to win with.

The Twins have had a long standing issue with outfield defense.  Last year, the trio of Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, and Delmon Young combined to produce -29 UZR (runs), a staggering figure for guys playing in three positions.  The trio is back this year.

Minnesota was able to mitigate that a bit with excellent infield defense from JJ Hardy, Danny Valencia, Nick Punto, Orlando Hudson, and a great first half with the glove from Morneau.  Of the five names, only Valencia is likely to be good to go on opening day.  Gone are Hardy, Punto, and Hudson.  Japanese signee Tsuyoshi Nishioka will take over at the keystone.  Alexi Casilla is sliding over to shortstop, the only position on the diamond where his bat profiles.  His glove may project there after all, but the Twins ask so much out of their infield defenders to make up for that outfield defense.  They also must rely on Denard Span to have another strong year with the glove in center.

The Twins might have jettisoned their role contributors while holding onto dead weight, such as Cuddyer.  That’s the concern with them.  But an offense that produced enough runs to be at the top of the AL last year — led by all-world catcher Joe Mauer — should pull off the same feat again with even greater ease this year.  The Minnesota pitching staff is unimpressive on paper, but very underrated as a group.  Joe Nathan returns in the closer role this year, strengthening the entire bullpen.

My Twins projection is depressed a bit not because the team won’t be improved at all, but because the White Sox, Royals, and Indians are all improving, and part of the effect of 94 wins by the Twins last year were simply poor in-division competition from teams that weren’t the Detroit Tigers.  The four game margin of victory in the AL Central probably understates how the Twins won’t have to make a deadline trade to win this division comfortably.

Zack Greinke Trade Makes the Brewers, but Does it Break the Royals?

December 20, 2010 Leave a comment
July 21, 2010: Starting pitcher Zack Greinke  of the Kansas City Royals delivers a pitch during a game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. The Royals won 5-2.

The arms race is on in the National League, although the participants aren’t exactly numerous.  It’s the Phillies, it’s the Brewers, and it’s everyone else.

Just a week after Cliff Lee re-joined the Philadelphia Phillies for nine figures of charity, the Kansas City Royals traded their ace, Greinke, to the Brewers for a package of players including OF Lorenzo Cain, RP Jeremy Jeffress, and SS Alcedies Escobar.  Greinke will make $27 million from the Brewers over the next two seasons before becoming a free agent in November of 2012.

It’s a no-brainer trade for the Brewers.  Some may question the wisdom of acquiring SS Yuniesky Betancourt in the same deal to be their starting shortstop: you now have to find a way to generate last year’s run production with Carlos Gomez in CF and Betancourt at SS.  That’s not going to be easy.  But with Greinke, the Brewers sport a rotation that rivals the Phillies for the best rotation in the National League.  They already had an ace-type in Yovani Gallardo, and Greinke gives the Brewers a pair of aces.  When you talk about having Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, you certainly have to think you have the best front-of-the-rotation in baseball.  Greinke and Gallardo, if nothing else, have to be in the same discussion.  The acquisition of Shaun Marcum from the Blue Jays gives Milwaukee another front-line starter who, in the opinion of this writer, is better than National League-lifer Roy Oswalt.  While Randy Wolf is not going to provide the quality of Cole Hamels at his best, he’d be a no. 3 pitcher anywhere else.

Only the A’s and Giants may feature a rotation stronger than either the Brewers or the Phillies.  I don’t think the Rays or Twins or Tigers or White Sox — who all have strong and deep pitching rotations — quite qualify.  The edge for the Phillies over the Brewers this year will come by way of an established offense.  The Brewers are looking strong on offense again this year, but it’s a lot of speculative value: Prince Fielder should rebound, Mat Gamel and Casey McGahee should continue to produce.  Maybe Betancourt will hit more like he did in 2010 instead of his 2009 disaster season.  Gomez could still develop into a competent bat-handler.  2-6, the Brewers can absolutely clobber the baseball.  But this is not a great defensive team, and the Phillies are almost certain to be healthier than last year, even once you account for the fact that their lineup is aging.  The Brewers should be considered the favorite to win the NL Central in 2011, and in a playoff field, we’ll get to see the strength of another young, top-loaded rotation in baseball.

The other part of this trade is from the Royals perspective, where the haul received might only partially off-set what Greinke put the Royals through over the last five months.  This isn’t a particularly strong group of prospects.

What can be said in defense of this trade for the Royals is that 1) I firmly believe the timing was right: Greinke couldn’t pitch for the Royals again unless they were willing to let him walk at the end of the 2012 season in free agency.  2) If the Royals were going to trade with the prospect-depleted Brewers, they could not have done better than they did.  One exception is if the Royals had acted sooner and were able to acquire 2B Brett Lawrie, prior to him being dealt to the Blue Jays for Marcum.  The Royals recouped some value in terms of salary relief from Betancourt, saving $4 million of the $6 million he was owed.  In total, the Royals paid Betancourt $3 million for a season and a half, roughly breaking even on their investment.

I think, though, that the Brewers only made sense as a Royals trading partner from the Brewers perspective.  The Royals could have done better.  The centerpiece of this trade, if you want to call it that, is Escobar for Betancourt.  Big upgrade for the Royals, no doubt, but this was a Zack Greinke trade after all.  If this trade is to be profitable for the Royals, they will need to be able to look down on their division in 2013, and say that Escobar is an equal or better player to the Rangers’ Elvis Andrus.  I’m not optimistic.  Lorenzo Cain was a trade-able piece that the Brewers didn’t value very much, but knew the timing was right to sell on him.  He fills a need for the Royals, but doesn’t provide much value.

The Royals were able to grab the top two pitching prospects in the Brewers system, but the Brew Crew might actually be happy to be rid of the Jeremy Jeffress headache.  His upside appears to be a major league closer, leaving the Royals to gauge the future value of their current closer, Joakim Soria, by far their best pitcher.  Jeffress has two substance-abuse positive tests, and suspensions.  What strikes me about him is that it’s not clear that the Royals really even want him or think they can turn him into a star, but he’s the only player that would help get the Royals value.  The final piece is a really nice pitching prospect named Jake Odorizzi, who is about three years away from major league action.

Again, Escobar is THE prospect in this deal, and he fills the biggest need, and has likely the best upside.  He had a .288 on-base percentage for the Brewers last year.  That’s why this trade is less than exciting for the Royals.  I don’t doubt Escobar can be great someday, and I don’t doubt that he’s going to on-base over .310 this year.  But what the Royals lost was much more significant.  They traded their best player for some up the middle help.

I think, in the short term, this does break the Royals.  Billy Butler has three years remaining as a Royal, pending a contract extension.  He’s likely to remain in Royal blue though 2011, and then all bets are off after that.  He could be the next piece to fall.  I don’t see the Royals moving Joakim Soria anytime soon, as his contract sheds some light on a potential move to replace Greinke in the Royals rotation: there are 2012 bonuses built in for innings pitched, as well as games finished.  Plus, in trading Greinke now, the Royals were also smartly selling off some injury risk, which reports are were a fear of GM Dayton Moore in light of a season-ending David DeJesus injury that cost him a midseason trade last year.  The Royals have no such risk with Soria: most of his contract is built in in the form of contract options.  He’s team controlled through 2014, but the Royals can really stretch Soria out this year as a front line starter with very limited financial risk.

At the conclusion of the 2011 season, the Kansas City Royals will go practically overnight from one of the worst teams in baseball to one of the most promising.  The total amount of prorated salary the Royals have committed to major league contracts after 2011 is $4.5 million.  That’s for three pitchers (Joakim Soria, Aaron Crow, Noel Arguelles).  They had $15.5 million more committed prior to this trade to Betancourt and Greinke.  A majority of the Royals roster in 2012 is expected to be of cheap, home-grown players.  This isn’t rebuilding: it’s starting from scratch.

Which is why Greinke wanted nothing to do with the Royals anymore.  Paraphrasing his own words, Greinke had already been through two Royals rebuildings (2004 under Allard Baird, and again in 2007 under Dayton Moore).  Both GMs gave it the old college try, but could not find improvement that would satisfy their ace.  It was the humane thing to trade him, and the Brewers are a great situation for Greinke.

The loser here is the Royals.  There would have been other trade partners who would have offered the Royals more value than Moore got from the Brewers.  I think the Braves had more to offer, and so did the Rangers, among others.  The Brewers gave Moore as much as he needed to be willing to deal his ace.  This won’t go down in history as an epically bad trade.  But the Royals didn’t need to avert a conflict with their star so much as they needed to finally win something.  They are not the winner in this deal.  Greinke is.

Where Did Zack Greinke’s Mojo Go?

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Things are getting ugly in Kansas City.

Actually, it’s not all bad for the Royals.  The team is — surprisingly — just 11 games under .500.  Most preseason projections would suggest that the team is just treading water at that point, but the Royals have at least supported their production up to this point.  They are actually underachieving their expected win total (RS-RA) by two games through June 8th, and at least currently are winning better than 40% of their games, something that they at least figure to be able to sustain over the season.  The team is getting better than expected production from most if not all of it’s regular hitters in a lineup that sits around the league average.  It’s been able to count on quality innings from Brian Bannister, Luke Hochevar, and Bruce Chen, of all people, and they’re pretty close from ridding the bullpen of it’s disaster relievers.

Still, the Royals are still at the point where they can only make national headlines once every fifth day, when Zack Greinke takes the mound.  And in 2010, every fifth game has turned out to be a disaster of the highest order for the struggling ballclub.

It’s hardly all Greinke’s fault.  The last time he could have potentially qualified for a win was May 18th at Camden Yards, when he gave up two solo homers to Luke Scott, but left that game with a 3-2 lead after the 7th inning.  Corey Patterson the hit a solo homer off of Blake Wood, and the Orioles went on to win the game.  That wasn’t the most recent time that Zack Greinke qualified for a quality start, but for all intents and purposes, the waters have been choppy ever since.  The Royals haven’t. scored. a run. with. Greinke. as the pitcher of record. since that day when he left with a lead after a quality start. Even though he chewed through most of the Orioles order without a lot of effort that day, I will qualify that as the beginning of his troubles, since he would have been incredibly fortunate to win a game against Baltimore in which he gave up two homers.

He lasted just 3 and a third innings against Colorado before a barrage of singles in the fourth knocked him from a game which began just fine (six of first seven batters retired).  He was credited with seven earned runs in a game that qualifies as his only disaster start of the last two years.  He was a little bit better at Boston the next week, earning a quality start against a quality lineup, but he was mostly fortunate that he was able to pitch out of trouble all night.  Of course, Greinke has always had a remarkable career-long ability to strand baserunners, so it’s when he starts to struggle with men on base that you start to worry about his psyche.

So last week, against California-LA Anaheim, Greinke allowed a season high 13 baserunners while gutting through six innings, and missing a quality start by a run.  He was able to pitch out of jams again, but couldn’t avoid the mammoth home run given up to Torii Hunter.  Things came to a head (hopefully) last night at Target Field, when Greinke allowed 9 more hits and five runs in just five innings, as the Twins had him laboring right from the start.

Greinke has been victimized by some really awful defense this year, usually in the form of Yuniesky Betancourt being unable to keep a slow rolling groundball on the infield to prevent a run, or an endless string of errors by infielders Betancourt, Alberto Callaspo, Mike Aviles, and Billy Butler.  That’s pushed his ERA higher than the mean, but truth be told, Greinke was probably playing with a worse defense last year when he won the Cy Young.  Of course, he was also playing with a worse offense, and well, this one is getting him just 2.1 runs per game of support.

The Royals’ pitching rotation has Greinke in a spot in between Kyle Davies and Bruce Chen where he absolutely needs to eat up innings and keep the bullpen fresh.  From April 21st through May 7th, Greinke made it through at least 7 innings each and every time out.  Since his May 7th outing at Texas, Greinke has gotten past the sixth inning only once, against the worst offense in the AL, Baltimore.  As recently as one month ago, Zack Greinke was just fine.  The next start, he struck out 8 Indians in 6 innings of work.  But from that point forward, the command of his crucial pitches — his “out” pitches, specifically — has slid immensely.

What’s remarkable about his stuff this year is that his movement is as good as it ever was.  His 2-seamer still looks electric on television.  The problem is that Greinke clearly has little feel for where the plate is, as he has been missing consistently with his fastball early in the count — his first pitch strike % is down slightly, but he’s almost never in 0-2 or 1-2 counts these days — and lefties are really starting to sit on that two seamer and drive it right out over the right field wall.  Greinke’s contact allowed percentages are remarkably out of line with career expectations, specifically, he’s never had any trouble missing bats outside of the zone at any point in his career, until now, when he’s getting contact on 75% of his swung on balls out of the zone.  If the movement is still there, and he’s still inducing ill-advised swings — which he is — why is Greinke giving up more hits and hard hit balls?

All roads lead to the same issue with command over his pitches.  Greinke’s struggling to sequence his pitches after the first one.  Whether he gets ahead of the hitter or not, he usually finds himself in 2-0 or 2-1 hitters counts.  Even if he happens to get ahead in the count 0-2 or 1-2, his out pitches are consistently being spoiled by foul balls, or hit back up the middle, running his pitch counts higher, earlier in games.  He threw 31 pitches in the first inning last night at Minnesota, giving up three runs, although he very nearly got out of the inning with no damage, getting a two out ground ball from Michael Cuddyer, that found a hole in Betancourt’s zone.  Zack’s ability to use the strike zone is evident in his still incredible strikeout to walk ratio, but those higher pitch counts mean more hittable pitches, and that in turn means more fly balls and deep fly balls, and living on the edge in pretty much every inning.

The Royals still have a player in Zack Greinke who is likely to give a quality start every time he takes the mound, which is what you want from your no. 1 starter.  Last year, the Royals were used to having so much more than just a no. 1 guy in Greinke.  Until they can start to give him more run support and pick him up to the point where he starts to command all four of his devastating pitches again, the Royals are probably going to have to live with a 3.5 run/9 Greinke who gets taken deep once or twice a game and struggles to get through 6 innings every night while limiting damage.  At the current rate of offense (i.e. taking the night off), that’s going to mean his record is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.  Hopefully, Zack Greinke comes out as stronger man and better pitcher on the other side of this disappointing season.

Zack Greinke: Cy Young winner, Best Interview in Sports

November 19, 2009 1 comment

Joe Posnanski with this Greinke-bit in his coronation column in the K.C. Star this morning:

The Cy Young Award press tour was not something he wanted to do. He didn’t even answer the Cy Young call because he did not recognize the number on his cell phone.

That comes just hours after Sam Mellinger (also of the Star) relays this bit to us via Twitter:

Zack on whether he’s thought about Cy Young since season ended: “Not really. I’ve been playing this World of Warcraft game.”

The primary question of this blog–if there was one–for about two months was, “seriously, how could you not love Zack Greinke?”  Well, the BBWAA spoke, and color me impressed and pleasantly surprised.  They do love Zack Greinke.

And by record margins as well.  25/28 first place votes for a guy who won only 16 games?  I’d have to think that even if CC Sabathia had won 20 games, Greinke would still have had enough pull to win.

The only question that Zack has to answer next season would be: is the best yet to come?

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Hey, you never know.  I’m not going to bet on it, but I’m even less inclined to bet against it.

Despite Record, Greinke Needs to win Cy Young

July 30, 2009 2 comments
flickr.com/Keith Allison

flickr.com/Keith Allison

It’s probably too early to start this talk, but if I don’t do it now, someone is going to beat me to it.

It’s conceivable that I have a significant bias here, advocating for my favorite baseball player to win the most prestigious award a pitcher can win.  It’s probably not fair to the other candidates, because I’m unlikely to change my opinion barring something totally improbable in the last two months.  You could say that I’m writing with a slant here.

But you can’t say that I’m wrong.

For one thing, this isn’t a particularly strong AL Cy Young race, despite Zack Greinke’s historic awesomeness.  His only legitimate competition is Roy Halladay, and there’s still an off chance that Halladay could wind up in the NL before the end of the day tomorrow.

Last year, I advocated for Halladay to win the Cy Young over Cliff Lee even though Lee had a slightly better ERA.  But Halladay had the higher strikeout rate, and he pitched in 23 more innings.  In my eyes, I’ll take a pitchers who records more total outs in a close race over a guy with a slightly better ERA.

This applies historically as well.  The last Royal to lead the AL in ERA did so by a significant margin: Kevin Appier in 1993.  However, he threw about twenty fewer innings with a higher WHIP and a middling strikeout rate, and finished behind Roger McDowell and Randy Johnson, and rightly so.

Well, as of this moment, Greinke has thrown just as many innings as Roy Halladay has, and that ERA race isn’t all that close.  Greinke leads the AL by more than half a run, and barring a string of three or more “blown” quality starts, will easily finish the season with the AL’s lead in ERA.  The fact that Greinke’s doing what he is with one of the worst defenses in MLB history behind him, a defense that arguably shortens every start by an inning or two simply by misplaying 3 or 4 balls a start, is remarkable.

Put it a different way, here’s a list of all active players who have ever posted a full-season ERA better than Zack Greinke current 2.08 mark (which, as previously menti0ned is somewhat inflated by a bad defense):

Pedro Martinez

And, well, it’s a pretty short list.

There are a few other pitchers in the AL who could get themselves into the Cy Young discussion by finishing strong: Josh Beckett, Edwin Jackson, Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, Jarrod Washburn, Jered Weaver all have an outside shot.

But the distance of all the non-Roy Halladay pitchers speaks more to just how much of a race this really isn’t right now.

The one blemish against Greinke is his 10-6 record: he may very well only win 15 games.  If Zack Greinke winds up with a 15-9 record and a 2.20 ERA, and the Royals end up 15-18 in his 33 starts, there will be some writers who will not vote for him for Cy Young.  It’s going to happen, might as well prepare yourself.  They’ll look at arguably the greatest pitching season in the last ten years, and ask, rhetorically, if Greinke really did enough?

This same writer will then cast his vote for a player with one or two more wins, and an ERA just south of 3.00.  That may very well be Roy Halladay.  If Halladay pitches well enough to be the clear cut second best AL pitcher in 2008, he’ll get the Cy Young award.  Nevermind that the award was designed for the single most dominant pitcher in the league in any given year.  Greinke is going to lose some votes because he had the audacity to sign with the Royals, because he knew what he was getting into, and because, if he had just been a little better than simply the best, he could have won 20 games.

Plenty of others will give Greinke the nod for consistently wowing us over the course of the year.  9 out of 10 weeks, Greinke goes out and does the amazing, and whether or not you score off him is entirely dependant on your ability (luck) to string your hits together in one inning.

In no uncertain terms, Greinke has been, to this point, the most valuable player in the AL this year.  It’s a testament to his dominance that he’s still in the discussion for the Cy Young, because pretty much any other pitcher in the league would be pushing 15 losses with the lack of run support and defensive support he gets every single start.  Unquestionably, if any pitcher has ever truly deserved the Cy Young, then Greinke needs this honor this year.