Why this door could be slamming on the KC Royals

Somewhere within Kauffman Stadium’s executive offices, where the business of planning and strategizing offseason KC Royals roster moves goes on out of public view and earshot, free agent pitcher Zack Greinke’s name has certainly come up. He is, after all, one of the best to ever pitch for Kansas City, a Royal Cy Young winner who left after a too-short seven-season stay and, at age 37 (he turned 38 after the regular season ended) won 11 games for Houston this year.

The notion of the Royals reuniting with Greinke in the twilight of his career has been mentioned in this space before and isn’t far-fetched. Kansas City could use him—he can still pitch, and pitch well, and his 219 career victories (60 of which the Royals helped him earn) speak for themselves and form the core of a good claim to a Cooperstown plaque. He could lead and counsel the club’s plethora of young pitchers.

If the Royals are interested in Greinke, they aren’t saying so publicly; this is a circumspect club typically willing, albeit sometimes begrudgingly, to openly admit interest in only their own signed players and free agents.

But if Greinke is on their minds, he may not be for long. The market isn’t trending favorably.

The market for Zack Greinke may be getting too expensive for the KC Royals.

Free agents, especially good ones in high demand, frequently sit back and watch their position markets develop. Those who sign before them generally establish market floors, giving more patient players strong indications of how much they can reasonably demand.

As of this writing, Greinke hasn’t signed. But the starting pitching market of which he is part is already moving, and moving fast.

Justin Verlander, whose 226 wins have him headed for the Hall of Fame, is returning to Houston for two years at a reported total cost of $50 million to the Astros. And the Angels are giving Noah Syndergaard a reported $21 million to pitch for them for one season.

But these are bets on the come, deals made despite not insignificant downside. Verlander turns 39 in February and pitched only one game for the Astros in 2020 before undergoing Tommy John surgery and missing all of this past season rehabilitating from it. And although he’s almost a decade younger than Verlander, Syndergaard shares with him a 2020 season lost to Tommy John surgery, and didn’t return to the Mets until the last week of the 2021 campaign.

The risk of these two signings lie, of course, with the clubs. Taken together, though, they have much to do with setting the market and may, combined with Detroit’s signing of Eduardo Rodriguez for $77 million over five years, have already established its floor for top-line starters like Greinke.

Greinke, then, stands to command a 2022 salary at least commensurate with the $25 million Verlander will make, and the $21 million the Angels will pay Syndergaard, but perhaps tempered a bit by the $15.4 million AAV of Rodriguez’s pact. Greinke will definitely be expensive.

Does that mean the KC Royals have no realistic shot at him? That depends on two things: what Greinke wants (assuming he’s willing to come back to the club) and how much latitude ownership is willing to give General Manager J.J. Picollo and President of Baseball Operations Dayton Moore.

But if they want Greinke, the Royals must move quickly. Other free agent starters like Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, and Marcus Stroman, are sure to haul down huge contracts, perhaps sooner rather than later considering the uncertain state of labor negotiations. A transaction freeze is a good bet if baseball doesn’t have a new collective bargaining agreement in place before the current deal’s scheduled expiration next week; the potential for a freeze could drive players and teams to get deals done now, and drive the market up at the same time.

The door on Greinke may not be shut quite yet. But it’s probably going to slam soon on the Royals.

Whether the KC Royals want a reunion with Zack Greinke, and he with them, remains to be seen. But even if the club is interested, it may be running out of time.