Every family has a weird cousin that doesn’t fit in with the other relatives. No one wants to sit next to him at the kids’ table during Thanksgiving dinner or get stuck alone with him after everyone else has gone home. We make fun of him behind his back, but as soon as he’s gone, we sorta miss him.
Zack Greinke was the weird cousin, a square-peg-in-a-round-hole, the guy that never quite fit in for the Royals after they drafted him with the 6th overall pick of the 2002 draft. Zack was a pitcher, the best pitcher in the majors (said Sports Illustrated in May 2009), but his career was unsatisfying to him because he longed to hit and play shortstop, and due to his love/hate relationship with the game of baseball.
Many would say Zack has led a charmed life. He was the Gatorade National High School Baseball Player of the Year, he married his high school sweetheart / Miss Daytona Beach beauty queen / Dallas Cowboy cheerleader, he won a Cy Young award, and he’s a multi-millionaire with the prospect of life changing riches in his future when he reaches free agency at the end of the coming season. But if you think all this makes Greinke happy, then you don’t know Zack.
I won’t rehash the details here again, but it’s well known that Zack has suffered from severe bouts of anxiety and depression. This illness has interfered with his life so dramatically that he once considered giving up baseball and mowing lawns for a living. We’re talking about an individual so socially withdrawn that when he was in school he hated to sit with other kids at lunchtime because he didn’t want to feel forced to fit in, who has grown up to work in a profession that requires him to stand on a pitcher’s mound in front of 35,000 screaming fans. Imagine the angst you would suffer if you were asked to speak in front of a business group, in your underwear and forgot what you planned to say, multiplied by 100 – that’s the fear and dread Greinke experiences every time he delivers a pitch. Zack doesn’t play baseball because he wants to, he does it because the expectations of his God-given talent demand it.
Yogi Berra once said that 90% of the game is half mental, and this statement has never been more true than when referring to Zack Greinke. Among fans I’ve spoken with he’s been called an enigma, a clubhouse cancer, a prima donna whose talent doesn’t make up for his poor attitude, and much worse. He pinch hits while wearing the wrong uniform. He tells other pitchers they have a phony attitude. He argued with his coach over which side of the rubber to pitch from. Even Greinke apologists must admit that Zack is a strange guy. There are thousands of fans who believe Zack’s gifts could take their team to the next level, and an equal number who are certain his addition to the clubhouse would destroy their team’s chemistry.
There is also strong disagreement about Zack’s value on the field. On the one hand, ESPN’s fantasy baseball rankings has Zack listed as the 14th best starting pitcher in the major leagues (above players such as Gio Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Mat Latos, Stephen Strasburg, Jeremy Hellickson, C. J. Wilson, Chris Carpenter, and many more coveted names), and on the other hand there is a vocal group of naysayers who observe that Zack is only as good as he wants to be and no one really knows how to motivate him to reach his full potential.
Zack will become a free agent at the end of the 2012 season and regardless of his baggage, there will be a bidding war for his services. Our sister site “Reviewing the Brew” has already contemplated what it would cost to sign Greinke after next season. They estimate about $18-20 million per year (I expect possibly for 5 years), unless the market changes significantly in the next few months.
Greinke recently dumped his agent (second time in the past couple years) and Brewer fans are hopeful they can use this opportunity to approach Zack directly and ask for a hometown discount at a more club-friendly $16 million per year. The Brewers were one step away from the World Series last year and they know Zack would like to continue playing for a winner. A couple problems with this plan for Milwaukee fans – the Brewers aren’t his home team and their future doesn’t look bright.
The Brewers could still potentially reach the playoffs next year in a weakened division that saw the Cardinals lose Albert Pujols this offseason, but they won’t be the same team without Prince Fielder. In addition, the suspension of reigning MVP Ryan Braun for performance enhancing drugs doesn’t leave fans with lots of feel good optimism for the future of the franchise. The Brewers traded away much of their high potential minor league talent to the Royals to obtain Greinke in a big push to make the Series last season. Now that several of their key pieces are either gone or in limbo, and their future mortgaged for a present that didn’t materialize, I don’t see Greinke returning to Milwaukee at the end of his current contract.
Brewer fans were all a twitter this week when it was reported by the MLB Brew Beat blog (and then repeated by several more) that Greinke was asked about the possibility of an extension with Milwaukee. Greinke’s polite response was, “I’ll talk to them about it.” If I was a Brew Crew fan, I wouldn’t hang my hat on that comment and assume Zack was going to return in 2013.
Greinke has played all or part of eight major league seasons. Seven of those seasons have been with the Royals, the team that drafted him, the team that was patient with him both before and after he was diagnosed, the team he won a Cy Young with, the team whose fans showed up in force just to cheer for him on nights when he was pitching. At a time when the Royals desperately needed him and their pitching ranks were in shambles (can you say Runelvys Hernandez?), the Royals allowed Greinke to take time away from baseball, to put his life back together. If anyone has a question about this, let me answer it – the Royals are Zack’s home town team.
You may remember Jim Eisenreich who played with the Twins, Royals, Phillies, Marlins, and Dodgers in the 80’s and 90’s. Jim suffered from Tourette Syndrome (TS) and was forced to take about three years away from baseball to receive treatment for his disease. TS is misunderstood by many, and often misinterpreted as an attitude problem which can result in the victim becoming isolated and outcast. You may also recall it was the Royals who welcomed Eisenreich back into the major league family following his treatment and I clearly remember fans embracing him and rooting for him to succeed. Jim was so accepted by the community that he made Kansas City his permanent home. I see similarities between his story and Zack’s.
Zack’s gorgeous and outspoken wife Emily enjoyed her time in Kansas City, and the Greinke’s still own a home in town. They both grew up in a suburb of Orlando (Apoka = Overland Park), which aside from the palm trees and gigantic amusement parks, and the fact Orlando doesn’t have a professional baseball team, it isn’t really all that different from Kansas City. There is little doubt the couple feel at home in KC.
Based on what we know about Zack and his condition, it seems reasonable to assume that his family and advisors would encourage him to stay away from the bright lights of the major markets when determining where he’ll play next. It doesn’t fit with Zack’s personality to be the center of attention, and he’d be constantly hounded in New York, Boston, LA, or even Chicago and Atlanta.
My guess is that Zack has enjoyed playing in the National League which gives him an opportunity to hit and run the bases, so I could see him signing with a “smaller market” team on the senior circuit like St. Louis or the Miami Marlins. Hopefully, his .143 batting average last season helped to put his dream of being the next Miguel Cabrera to bed, forcing him to focus on the one thing he does better than almost anyone else – pitch. If so, then an American League team should be on equal footing with a National League team in any bidding war.
You’ve probably figured out by now that I’d like to see Zack wearing a Royals uniform again in 2013. I realize that many people disagree with my perspective, including some of my fellow writers here at Kings of Kauffman and many of the people who comment below our stories who think it would be a mistake to pursue Zack next year.
If you believe it might be farfetched for the underfunded Royals to afford Greinke, or that he wouldn’t want to return, it might interest you to know that the hosts of the MLB Networks’ Hot Stove Live don’t think it’s a stretch. On their January 20, 2012 program, they boldly predicted Greinke would return to KC in 2013. Their reasoning was that Zack and the Glass family have a strong relationship, he and his wife enjoy Kansas City, and the Royals will be poised to field a competitive team in 2013, which would make them attractive to Zack.
I’d like to re-sign Greinke, partially because I like his story. I almost always root for the guy who overcomes adversity, in whatever form, to succeed. I’ve personally known people who suffer from the same afflictions as Zack and I discovered that you can’t take this ailment lightly. It’s real, it impacts lives, and it causes outsiders to question the victim’s judgment and sanity. But when treated properly and supported by patient friends, family, and coworkers, this sickness can be overcome.
I also know the Royals are two front-line starting pitchers away from having the talent to compete with the best teams in the American League. With a stable of young and strong pitching arms like Mike Montgomery, Jake Odorizzi, John Lamb, Noel Arguelles, Aaron Crow, and others, I’m relatively confident the Royals can develop one of these starters in-house. My best guess is that the other will need to come from a trade or free agency. Who better to fill this gap than with the one that got away, our crazy cousin Zack.
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