What If Zack Greinke Is Right?

By now, you may have seen this piece by Bob Dutton at the Kansas City Star.  If not, the link opens in a new window, and you should definitely check it out.

Zack Greinke is the best player on the Kansas City Royals.  Despite a 2010 season that hundreds of pitchers would kill for, his 3.97 ERA and 1.19 WHIP would be solid for any team in the majors – and yet it looks like a disappointment after his 2009 Cy Young season.  He’s the face of Kansas City baseball right now, and he’s under contract until after the 2012 season.

And yet, as Dutton reported, he’s not sure he’ll be around for the next rebuilding period – Mission 2012 as Sam Mellinger coined it.

It’s been an amazing season in the minor leagues. Mike Moustakas has torn through the Texas League and is showing the same power for Omaha. Eric Hosmer‘s stellar season in Wilmington has only been overshadowed by his power boom in Northwest Arkansas. Wil Myers has just been named #1 on Baseball America’s Prospect Hot Sheet for the week. Meanwhile, Mike Montgomery and John Lamb have vaulted into the top pitching prospects in the minors. That’s not even mentioning some of the other players in the system who have been having great years that fall into the lower ranks of the prospect list.

But minor league success is no guarantee of major league success. Just ask Alex Gordon. Or Greinke himself. When he debuted in 2004 at the age of 20, Greinke put up a 3.97 ERA in 24 starts and finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting. But in 2005, he led the league with 17 losses and had a 5.80 ERA. After his noted time away from the game, he came back strong and returned as a well-above average pitcher, but it took him a few years of adjustment to become truly elite.

The frustration of losing may be weighing on Zack when he makes comments like “There’s no reason for me to get real excited about it, because the chance of more than one of them making a major impact by the time my contract is up is pretty slim.”

On the surface, it seems pessimistic, to some even like whining. But it’s a true and sobering fact – nothing says that because Myers is hitting almost .400 in the Carolina League means he’ll hit at an average rate in the majors. Players hit walls all the time, they get hurt, they lose confidence. All the scouting and projecting doesn’t mean anything if they don’t continue performing.

Jeff at Royals Review is undertaking an interesting project where he’s trying to project Royals minor leaguers major league potential based on their raw numbers in the minors. His formulas and calculations work out to compare some of the better pitching prospects to average or slightly above average major leaguers and not necessarily the aces we hope they can become. He concludes that by his projections, Tim Collins, Montgomery and Lamb may be the only regular major league pitchers.

Kind of takes the wind out of your sails, huh?

There aren’t similar projections for hitters, yet, but considering their rough seasons in 2009, Hosmer and Moustakas aren’t out of the woods. They could very well regress or battle a nagging injury that derails their progress. Maybe they develop a bad habit or can’t adjust to improved levels of competition. Or maybe they just turn out to lack the heart for the game and fizzle out. It’s disappointing to think about, but it’s possible.

In recent years, Dayton Moore has used most of his high draft picks on college players. I sense that he wants The Process to start sooner rather than later and is going all-in on the collection of players most near the majors. If those front lines fail, though, the franchise will be set back yet again and they’ll have to start over rebuilding the pipeline.

There are a few players in the lower minors who are doing well, but they don’t project as the level of prospects that we’re seeing now (but of course by the time they may be ready, they could have developed to that level). Names like Cheslor Cuthbert and Michael Antonio could be future prospects, but they’re both still in their teens, so they have a ways to go. Crawford Simmons is pitching well at the Rookie League level and he’s barely 19, but that doesn’t mean he’ll ever reach the majors. That’s the risk you run with young players – very few actually make it.

We may see Moustakas up next year, either at the start of the season or sometime in June. I’d imagine Eric Hosmer will be in Omaha next season, while William Myers has a shot to be there around midseason. Lamb and Montgomery (and Danny Duffy, who was a solid prospect who’s getting overlooked with his fellow lefties’ success) should be in Omaha next season, and could see a couple of token starts this season still. If you put those guys on the fast track, they could be up sometime in 2011, but it’s more likely that they make their debuts in 2012 (assuming no setbacks or disasters).

How likely is it that a team comprised mostly of rookies will contend, regardless of their talent level? The average age of the last ten World Series champions is 29.9 years old. The youngest team, the Florida Marlins of 2003, achieved success by relying on a starting rotation that included Josh Beckett (23), Dontrelle Willis (21), Brad Penny (25) and Carl Pavano (27). But as a team, the Marlins still had an average age of 27.6 years. In 1985, the Royals trio of Bret Saberhagen (21), Mark Gubicza (22) and Danny Jackson (23) shocked the world – and that pitching staff had an average age of 25.8 years, with 32 year old Dan Quisenberry as the dean of the staff.

Montgomery, Lamb, et al are in that same age range, but it’d be highly exceptional to see them in Kansas City as regulars any sooner than next September. With pitch counts and inning counts the way they are, no executives are trying to rush young pitchers any more than they feel is safe. At 21, Bret Saberhagen threw 235 innings and 10 complete games in 1985. That’s a ton of innings by today’s standards, and nobody would expect Lamb or Montgomery to be asked to put up those types of numbers and they’ll be 22 and 23 in July 2012 respectively. Now, the Royals could be competitive in 2012, perhaps even pushing for a playoff spot. And maybe that’s enough to get Greinke (who’ll be 29 at that point) to sign another extension and see the Process out.

It’d be nice to reward his loyalty, but if there are struggles or injuries or any number of setbacks, there’s a solid possibility that this time next year, the Royals will have moved Greinke for the package of young, potential aces (plus change) that they’d named as their price this season. Zack Greinke‘s an excellent pitcher, and my favorite player on the team, but he, like many Royals fans, is fed up with the losing and wants to win.

I hope it happens soon, and I hope he’s a part of it.

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Tags: AL Central Baseball Dayton Moore Eric Hosmer John Lamb Kansas City Royals KC Mike Montgomery Mike Moustakas MLB Royals Wil Myers Zack Greinke

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