The Royals Bring Back Zack Greinke…And More!

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For much of the winter, fans watched the Royals stand pat as an unprecedented blitz of player movement around Major League Baseball bracketed the 99-day MLB lockout. Now, the silence has ended as an eventful Wednesday afternoon culminated in a huge splash: the return of 2009 American League Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke.

Greinke, arguably the second-best player to be drafted and developed by the Royals (behind George Brett, obviously), returns to the organization where he debuted at 20 years old in 2004, earned his only Cy Young Award, and whose departure brought back two huge pieces of the 2014-15 teams: Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar.

Now, Greinke is a substantially different pitcher than he was in 2010, when he threw his last pitch in a Royals uniform, so now, don’t expect another Cy Young, but there appears to still be enough left in the tank.

That said, it took some moving parts to make this deal happen, so let’s look back at what the Royals did to make this deal work:

The Mike Minor Deal

After an offseason of quietly picking off table scraps, the Kansas City Royals made what appeared to be the major move of the day, starting Wednesday afternoon by swapping LHP Mike Minor to the Cincinnati Reds for LHP Amir Garrett.

Minor, who turned 34 in December, went 8-12 with a 5.05 ERA in a team-high 28 starts and 158.2 innings in 2021, posting a mediocre 1.0 WAR in his return to Kansas City. The 29-year-old Garrett, meanwhile, is also coming off a miserable season, going 0-4 with a 6.04 ERA in 63 games out of the bullpen in Cincinnati, earning -0.3 WAR.

Minor had one year left and $10 million left on his deal, as he was scheduled to command the third-highest salary on the 2022 Royals. Garrett’s 2022 salary is believed to be $2 million for this season. He has three years of club control left before free agency.

Paving the Way for Greinke

Minor’s departure left a hole in the starting rotation, as evidenced by his team high totals in starts and innings a year ago. Ken Rosenthal reported that the Royals also freed up a total of $8.5 million by shedding Minor’s deal, leaving more payroll flexibility to make a move:

A subsequent follow-up tweet from Rosenthal indicated that the Royals were sniffing around on Oakland right-hander Frankie Montas, who appears to be the next A’s stalwart in line for their current fire sale, which has seen cornerstones Matt Olson and Matt Chapman and All-Star Chris Bassitt get dealt, with Mark Canha and Starling Marte also departing via free agency.

Presumably, the Greinke deal means a Montas trade won’t happen, but if the Royals want to grab a crowbar and a two-by-four and jam open their next window of contention, swinging a deal may be the way to do so. The price wouldn’t be cheap, but the Royals have prospects and a lot of unenviable 40-man roster decisions coming quickly, so the time may be right to package a few prospects and make a big splash. Again though, this is probably very unlikely at this point.

Greinke Comes Home

Barely two hours after the news of the Garrett trade broke (and a few minutes after the first draft of this article went to editing), the Royals filled their desire for a right-handed starter in short order. Per MLB Network’s Joel Sherman, the agreement is the one-year, $13-million pact reported by Rosenthal, adding that $2 million in innings-related bonuses are included.

Greinke now has a chance to improve on his Royals career line, which has been frozen for over a decade at 60-67 with a 3.87 ERA and 931 strikeouts in 1,108.0 innings. As the 8th overall pick in 2002, he raced to the majors in less than two years, debuting in May 2004. After finishing 4th in the Rookie of the Year voting that season, the bottom fell out: a 5-17 record and 5.80 ERA amidst the unmitigated disaster that was the 2005 Royals. He then missed most of 2006 as anxiety nearly derailed his career.

Coming back he found his form, posting a 3.55 ERA over 2007-08 before putting it all together in 2009. The end result? A 16-8 record, 2.16 ERA, 242 strikeouts (two off the franchise record), and six complete games. He led the league in ERA+, FIP, and home run rate (allowing just 11 in 229.1 innings). He threw a scoreless inning in the All-Star Game and won the Cy Young in a landslide. His 10.4 WAR that season are the most in Royals history and the most by an American League pitcher in the last two decades.

Alas, his encore was disappointing: a 10-14, 4.17 ERA season in 2010 that was worth a much more modest 3.5 WAR. With the Royals floundering, Greinke asked for a trade and was dealt to Milwaukee, setting off a decade spent in Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Arizona, and Houston, with plenty of success in between. Now at 38 years old, he returns to where it all began.

Again, he is a much different pitcher now compared to 2009, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t an impactful signing. So, we’ll take a step back and look at the impact of everything that transpired today:

The Royals Make a Move That is Universally Applauded

Usually when teams add a 38-year-old on a one-year deal, there isn’t much of a ripple in the Twittersphere. This deal was much different. Within minutes, Royals Twitter came roaring out of the woodwork to express their rousing approval in various ways: one-word insta-reactions (That’s me), tongue-in-cheek “jersey swaps” that are really 15-year-old photos, joy in all-caps, and others digging around for some old t-shirts.

The point is, this is a deal that was almost unanimously praised instantly by Royals fans (as well as some industry insiders), which is rare for a team like the Royals that makes few big splashes. From a marketing standpoint, this is a trade that will unquestionably lead to people buying tickets to see Greinke pitch and buying new t-shirts and jerseys to replace the ones that wound up in a Goodwill box several years ago.

That said, there are baseball reasons for the move. After all, $13 million is still a decent chunk of change for the Royals to throw down. With Minor being dealt, the remnants of the Royals rotation were Brad Keller, Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, and Daniel Lynch, who all feel like locks for the Opening Day rotation.

There’s also Carlos Hernandez, who outperformed all of them last year, albeit, with only 11 starts. Behind them, there’s still Jackson Kowar, if he can figure things out at the MLB level, plus the lesser-known fifth member of the top of the 2018 draft class, right-hander Jon Heasley. This depth could prove to be critical as this year may be another one filled with pitchers going down left and right as the lockout leads to another disrupted offseason and spring training, plus a condensed regular-season schedule that eliminates multiple off days.

At the same time, the common denominator amongst all of those arms is that all of them are very young. Keller is the oldest of the group at 26 years old, and is the only one who had thrown an MLB pitch before 2020 (he debuted in 2018). In Greinke, who made his MLB debut while the rest of his rotation-mates were in tee-ball, the Royals bring in a veteran presence who is not afraid to be direct to younger players, but is also universally respected in the game.

What We Can Expect from Greinke

Greinke also still has something left in the tank, though what’s left is more like the trusty F-150 than a brand-new Corvette. He averaged 94.4 MPH on his fastball in 2009, which has plummeted to 88.9 MPH in 2021—The seventh-slowest of qualified MLB starters.

He combats that with a changeup that is nearly the same speed as his fastball (86.4 MPH), but behaves much different, plus a slider that is almost always in a tough spot to hit and his trademark extremely slow curveball, which averages 71.2 MPH, but will often come in much slower.

From the day he arrived in the majors, Greinke’s control was always top-notch, as he allowed just 2.3 BB/9 in his first stint with the Royals. As he’s aged, though, he’s ramped up the control, walking just 1.6 batters per nine over the past four seasons. The continued sharpness has aided him as his strikeout rate has plummeted.

Greinke enters 2022 only 191 strikeouts shy of 3,000 for his career, but it’s likely he will finish the season well short. In 2021, he struck out 120 batters in 171.0 innings, with his strikeout rate of 17.2% ranking as the fifth-lowest in all of Major League Baseball.

That means his success will likely be predicated on the performance of his defense and his home ballpark, which is good news. As we all know, Minute Maid Park is small and Kauffman Stadium has the most fair territory in the American League. Good start.

As for defense, last year Houston fielded behind him the third-best defense in baseball, according to Fielding Bible’s Defensive Runs Saved. The Royals ranked 14th, though that was primarily due to two landmines: third base (tied for worst in the majors) and right field (second worst). Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler were the primary culprits and Soler will be gone. Dozier? Well, he’ll still be somewhere.

However the Royals do have Michael A. Taylor, the best defensive center fielder in baseball last year, and Andrew Benintendi, who anchored the third-best left field slot in baseball. Whit Merrifield (rated the top second baseman in 2021) and some combination of Nicky Lopez, Adalberto Mondesi, and Bobby Witt Jr. should be very solid up the middle. Of course, five-time Gold Glove winner Salvador Perez will be catching him. Depending on how often Dozier is in the field, the Royals should be able to put a very good defense behind Greinke.

All told, his declining velocity and diminishing ability to miss bats will certainly hurt him from a sabermetrics standpoint. His surface stats in 2021 were fine (11-6, 4.16 ERA), but his advanced were not as much (1.2 WAR, 4.71 FIP), thanks in large part to the aforementioned great defense. So, what this means is that while Greinke should bring a big morale boost, barring a stunning turnaround, his ceiling is more like a number-three starter. However, barring a stunning drop off, he should still be plenty useful as well.

The Royals Continue Beefing Up the Bullpen

As mentioned earlier, the money to get Greinke was freed up by dealing Minor for Amir Garrett, who will slide into the Royals bullpen.

After the All-Star break in 2021, the Royals bullpen turned a corner, posting the fifth-best bullpen ERA in baseball in the second half. The trio of Scott Barlow, Josh Staumont, and Jake Brentz were excellent all season while Domingo Tapia impressed late, but there was plenty of dead weight, too: Greg Holland, Kyle Zimmer, and the now-retired Wade Davis all struggled and all have been cut loose.

In Garrett, the Royals get another fire-breathing reliever who averaged 94.8 MPH with his fastball the last two years. However, what they get is a rather mixed bag. On his Statcast ratings, Garrett ranked in the 75th percentile in fastball velocity, 80th percentile in strikeout rate, and 91st percentile in whiff rate (all good!)…but in the 3rd percentile in hard-hit rate, 4th percentile in walk rate, and 15th percentile in average exit velocity (all really bad!). There will be a bit of a reclamation project at hand, but nothing that appears to be too broken.

The root cause seems to come down to control. Even at his best, he’s always been effectively wild, if you will, as he posted a cumulative 3.60 ERA from 2018-20, despite walking 4.4 batters per nine (including 5.6 BB/9 and a 3.21 ERA in 2019). In 2021, though, his walk rate shot up to 5.5 BB/9, his strikeout rate dipped (from 12.6 K/9 in 2019-20 to 11.5), and he got hit harder—a lot harder. A two-pitch pitcher, Garrett works with a slider and fastball and uses them almost the same amount. Look at the heat map of his fastballs in 2021:

Amir Garrett fastball heat map

Generally speaking, MLB hitters will usually tell you that a fastball down the middle is the best pitch to hit, so throwing the highest concentration of your pitches there is generally a recipe for disaster. If you throw 100+, you can get away with challenging hitters over the plate. If you throw 95 (which Garrett does), you probably won’t. Not surprisingly, hitters teed off, slugging .570 off his fastball in 2021, a mark which would’ve ranked sixth in the majors if it were an individual hitter.

There will definitely be work for Cal Eldred and company to do with Garrett. Looking on the bright side, the Royals have a track record of fixing struggling relievers, while also being able to straighten out much more severe command issues with Staumont. Even if they can’t straighten out Garrett, the Royals have enough good arms that, barring injury or tragic regression, he won’t need to pitch key innings late. If the Royals can get him right, then Kansas City has five potential arms they can rely on for high-leverage spots. With a young rotation, a compressed spring training, and a compressed season ahead, that could be more critical than ever.

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