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The Greinke trade that could have been

What if the Royals had sent Greinke to Washington?

Kansas City Royals v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

When the Royals traded Zack Greinke back in December of 2010 to the Brewers, they received a haul in terms of talent. Future franchise cornerstones Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar, along with pitchers Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi were obtained for Greinke, Betancourt and cash. But did you know there was another trade proposal that could have happened, had Greinke not blocked it with his no-trade clause?

I’m not normally one for “what ifs”, but a discussion in the comments the other day sparked a thought in my head. A comment was made expressing relief that Zack had blocked the initial trade. I was a bit surprised by this, as I recall thinking (years after the fact) that the initial trade would also have been pretty good. Perhaps I was wrong?

The initial trade proposal was by the Washington Nationals. They had reportedly proposed trading starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, infielder Danny Espinosa and reliever Drew Storen for Greinke (of course this never came to fruition so there may have been other minor pieces, but for the sake of this article I’m focusing only on these three parts).

Jordan Zimmermann would have been the main “get” for the Royals in this case. After posting 1.9 fWAR in 2009 in 91.1 innings with the big league club, Zimmermann spent most of 2010 in the minors, only pitching 31 innings over 7 starts with the Nationals to the tune of a 4.94 ERA, good for -0.3 fWAR. His stock may have been somewhat low at this point, but having been a top 100 prospect in 2009, the upside was still there.

Danny Espinosa was a September call-up in 2010. He was primarily a second baseman, but could also play shortstop. He cracked a few top 100 lists (Baseball Prospectus had him as 101). Defensive metrics seemed to like him, and he had good power for a middle-infielder. He struggled with his hit tool, but most felt he would overcome this and be able to become an every day player with a low-average but sneaky 15-20 HR power.

Drew Storen had thrown 55.1 innings with the big league club in 2010 to a 3.58 ERA. He had struck out nearly a batter per inning, had done well at limiting walks, and posted 0.6 fWAR. He had set-up man/closer stuff, and had dominated the minor leagues in 2009/2010, never posting an ERA above 1.80 above A+.

So now we know who the players were at the time. The real question at this point is, what would have been different had the Royals been able to make this trade, rather than trade with the Brewers?

For starters, Danny Espinosa, Yuniesky Betancourt and Chris Getz would have had to compete over the middle infield. Getz was firmly cemented at 2B, and Betancourt was on the final year of his deal with the Royals. Espinosa would likely have lingered in the minors for 2011, getting the call over Giavotella when one of Betancourt or Getz was injured, needed rest, or just playing the utility man role. The Royals likely don’t re-sign Betancourt after 2011, so that’s a pretty big positive.

Espinosa was worth 7.9 fWAR over the course of his team control. He was worth 3.2 in 2011 and 2.6 in 2012, with significant drop-off thereafter. His hit tool never took the step forward several thought it might, and he owns a career 82 wRC+ with 98 HRs. He was, and is a better hitter than Escobar, but his defense at short might not have been as good. Overall, I’d call Espinosa vs Escobar pretty much a wash.

Drew Storen is a cromulent reliever for the Royals. During the time he was under control, he put up good, not great numbers. He would have been just another arm in an otherwise decent bullpen from 2011-2013, and helped extend the bullpen depth even more in 2014/2015 in the days of HDH. Perhaps we don’t see Jason Frasor. Perhaps Brandon Finnegan doesn’t debut in 2014 having him in the bullpen, but his presence largely changes nothing.

Jordan Zimmermann changes quite a bit, however. Zimmermann was one of the better pitchers in baseball from 2011-2015 when he hit free agency. With Zimmermann posting 3.1 and 3.3 fWAR in 2011 and 2012, the Royals likely don’t feel the need to pull the trigger on the James Shields trade (they notably also lack Jake Odorizzi, being acquired in the actual Greinke trade, which was part of how it came to fruition). Wil Myers and Mike Montgomery are the two key pieces that the Royals retain.

Wil Myers has had a very up-and-down career. He would have made have made his debut in 2013, likely playing right field. He posted 2.3 fWAR in 88 games, hitting .293/.354/.478. He only appeared in 87 games in 2014 and 60 games in 2015, being injured. In 2016 he posted 3.5 fWAR with the Padres, but has been slightly below replacement level since. Rios and Aoki both likely never become Royals.

Mike Montgomery didn’t debut until 2015 and has been both a starter and reliever with some success. Most notably he pitched with the Cubs in 2018, starting 19 games and appearing in 38 with a 3.99 ERA over 124 innings, good for 1.5 fWAR.

The Royals with Zimmermann also likely don’t feel the need to trade for Cueto in 2015, having a solid front rotation arm on the roster already. Brandon Finnegan, Cody Reed and John Lamb remain in the Royals system. Notably none of these three have done much, but perhaps having the depth of these three would have prevented trading Matt Strahm in 2017, or signing Travis Wood and Jason Hammel.

Of course the Royals may have chosen to trade for a starting center fielder at some point, not having Lorenzo Cain roaming the K for many years. Rajai Davis, Coco Crisp and David DeJesus were all available after 2013, so perhaps one of them comes to the Royals. Perhaps they decide to not release Emilio Bonifacio and use some combination of him, David Lough and Jarod Dyson to man center.

Speaking of Cain, he is really the reason the actual trade worked out so well for the Royals. Lorenzo Cain, if you didn’t know, was actually VERY good in his time with the Royals. I mean, really, really good. From 2011-2017, Lorenzo Cain was the 48th most valuable position player in baseball posting 20.2 fWAR. That’s good for the 18th most valuable out-fielder, edging out names like Michael Brantley, Shin-Soo Choo, Matt Holiday and Dexter Fowler, and just barely being dedged out by Yoenis Cespedes and Brett Gardner.

There’s no way to know what would have happened had Greinke not turned down the trade. Perhaps, without Cain’s presence, the Royals never ascend to the levels they were in 2014/2015, and we’re still in the middle of a 34+ season playoff drought. It’s also possible that the Royals are able to trade or sign players to put themselves in a similar position in those seasons, and due to not having to mortgage quite as much of the farm are in better shape in 2016-present times to contend. It’s impossible to say, but it is sometimes fun to think about.