Inspired by Jesse A Anderson’s recent post The games we remember that never happened, I want to talk about the trade we all remember that never happened. You know the one: Zack Greinke to the Nationals. But while researching something related recently, I found it didn’t happen in a very different way than we all remember.
The Royals had lost 95 games in 2010 but the future looked bright as the team had been collecting high draft picks for several years and now had, as one writer put it, the best farm system in the history of whatever.
But Greinke was not content to wait for the prospects to develop—if they ever would—and made it known publicly that he wanted out. He forced their hand, as we all know, and Dayton Moore shopped him around before working out a trade with Washington, only to have it vetoed by Greinke. Moore then turned to Milwaukee and worked out the deal that brought Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar, among others, to Kansas City.
That’s how the legend goes, but that’s not the way it happened. First, although Greinke probably did let the Royals know he was unhappy, he did not publicly demand a trade and he never made negative comments publicly about the Royals. And second, the Royals never reached an agreement with the Nationals.
It was not a foregone conclusion that Greinke would even be traded during that offseason. Discussion at Royals Review in mid-November reached no consensus. Dayton Moore already had a reputation for holding on to players he valued, and there seemed to be no reason to think it would be different with Greinke.
But the wheels had already been turning since July 9, when the Texas Rangers acquired Cliff Lee from Seattle for their pennant run. Lee was dominant in the AL playoffs that fall, striking out 34 batters in three games, and allowing only one walk and two runs total, as the Rangers clinched their first ever American League pennant. He struggled in the World Series, but it was clear that the free agent Lee was an ace the Rangers needed to keep if they wanted to stay competitive. If they couldn’t resign him, they would need to find a similar caliber pitcher, and Greinke seemed the obvious choice.
And so, through late November, whenever teams talked about Greinke, they expected to see him wearing a Rangers uniform in 2011. Some Rangers officials were hopeful of landing both Lee and Greinke to give them two aces. However, on December 3, MLB Trade Rumors reported this:
Texas has been considered the favorite to land Greinke if Kansas City does indeed move him this winter, but a source tells Rosenthal the Rangers' proposals for Greinke have been "not even close" to convincing the Royals. Rosenthal notes that some members of the Rangers organization believe the Royals don't really intend to deal Greinke given the high asking price of at least "two young pitchers with Greinke-like potential in any trade for their ace."
There are two salient points here. First, even in early December the Royals didn’t feel any pressure to trade their ace. If Greinke had said anything about wanting out, it had been in private discussions that were not leaked by either side, and were not taken seriously by the Royals.
The second point, which reinforces the first, is that the Royals’ asking price was high enough that at least one rival thought they weren’t serious about trading Greinke at all.
We would learn more over that weekend, when the Blue Jays, who had talked to Moore about Greinke in November, restated their interest. Greinke had a 15-team no-trade clause, and the Blue Jays were one of those teams. However, Greinke made it known on Sunday that he would be "willing to go anywhere." But he stopped short of demanding a trade.
The rumor mill would kick into high gear soon. The Winter Meetings opened on Monday, and the name on everyone’s lips was...Zack Greinke. Jayson Stark quoted one AL official as saying, "My sense is that Greinke has been trying to convince the Royals that it's not a great idea if he's there next year. And I think that's pushed this to another level."
But, Stark continued, the Royals were under no compulsion to trade him.
The Royals continue to tell teams the price hasn't dropped -- and they feel no pressure whatsoever to move a guy who can't be a free agent for two more seasons. So, yeah, they might move him. But it could be next July. It could be next December. It could be July 31, 2012.
If Moore felt any pressure to trade Greinke, he did not say anything that might give trade partners an upper hand. Or perhaps he really didn't feel pressure.
Every team correctly surmised the Royals wouldn’t move Greinke before Lee signed, but most officials also believed the price would come down over time. But with so many teams interested—teams with good prospect depth—and no other pitchers of his caliber available, the Royals could afford to wait for the best offer.
On Wednesday the Greinke rumor mill was quiet, other than a confirmation from the Royals that they would not trade Greinke as long as Lee remained unsigned, and a misunderstanding about a potential three-way trade with the Rangers and Marlins. And so the winter meetings ended with no real news, for either Lee or Greinke.
The following Monday, Jon Heyman reported:
One person familiar with Greinke's situation claimed the star right-hander from the Orlando, Fla., area is "ready to go,'' to leave the only team he's ever known. With the Rangers, Blue Jays, Dodgers, Nationals and Brewers believed to be in the mix pretty seriously, and the possibility of one or two more teams that fail to land Lee ready to dive in, Moore is said to be shooting for a "haul," which is only the fair and understandable goal for a 27-year-old who's one of the game's best pitchers.
None of this would be news, except that Milwaukee and Washington had previously taken themselves out of the running.
On the same day, we saw the first actual names floated who the Royals might want in return. Nothing looked promising. The Blue Jays didn’t want to give up Kyle Drabek and Travis Snyder, and the Nationals didn’t want to give up Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann. Dayton Moore did not think the top prospects of the Rangers, Brewers, or Yankees organizations were good matches for the Royals’ needs. It was beginning to look like Greinke would be a Royal in 2011 after all.
Then on Wednesday Cliff Lee surprised everyone and signed with the Phillies, and the Rangers and Yankees both found themselves scrambling for an ace.
With Lee off the board, the Royals were ready to deal. Greinke was too. That Friday, Greinke fired his agent and hired Casey Close of CAA, who had helped with Roy Halladay’s exit from Toronto the previous winter. Although Greinke didn’t give an explanation for the change, an unnamed official from another MLB team bluntly stated, "He really wants out of K.C." However, there was a complication. Greinke’s 15-team no-trade list included most of the teams pursuing him. The Yankees, Brewers, Nationals, and Blue Jays were all on the list. It looked like the Rangers might get him by default if he were traded at all.
Saturday morning, MLB Trade Rumors posted this rumor via Buster Olney:
The Nationals were informed that in order to land Greinke, they would have to part with Jordan Zimmermann, Drew Storen, and Danny Espinosa. Rival executives expect the asking price to come down in the weeks ahead.
For our purposes, this means the Nationals did not agree to this deal.
On Sunday morning the news broke that Greinke had been traded to Milwaukee.
It’s possible the Nationals made a counter offer later on Saturday, but if so, the names were never reported. And several sources denied the two teams had ever reached agreement. Jon Heyman tweeted only that the Royals and Nats were close and that they had been talking.
The Nationals, according to sources, had been pursuing a trade for Greinke but did not want to include right-handed starter Jordan Zimmermann in the package, which the Royals insisted on.
Ken Rosenthal, in his wrap-up the next day, said:
The Nationals expressed a willingness to put together a package that would have brought them Greinke, but they never reached agreement on an actual trade before the pitcher vetoed the idea of going to Washington.
It makes sense that the Royals would have checked with Greinke before hammering out the last of the details. If two sides are not on the same page, and one of the players has veto power, there is no reason to continue without getting his input. Because if he says no, there’s no need to go through the trouble.
Now it’s possible these reporters all missed something in the rush to write about the trade. But then there’s this piece from the Washington Post three months later, discussing Greinke’s decision and explaining how his desire to "win now" was the determining factor. Even at that late date, no one suggested an agreement had been reached with the Nationals.
For the Nationals, the cost of acquiring Greinke would have been steep — not only in terms of money, but in talent. The Nationals indicated to the Royals that they were willing to part with Jordan Zimmermann, one of their top young pitchers, and discussed other names such as reliever Drew Storen and second baseman Danny Espinosa — two other young, low-cost players at the core of the team’s building-from-within model — as potential pieces of the package, according to sources familiar with those discussions.
They were "names such as," and were "potential pieces of the package," not "pieces of the potential package". The wording suggests ongoing talks, not a finalized deal.
FInally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the lone exception. The day after the trade, a post by Patrick Reddington at Federal Baseball, the Nationals’ SB Nation blog, claimed, "The Nationals made the best offer, or at least the one that Kansas City's general manager Dayton Moore liked best."
It may be true that Moore liked this matchup best if it would have included Jordan Zimmermann, a starting pitcher who already had more than 120 innings of major league experience. But that in itself doesn’t mean the deal was done. The same post goes on to say:
Brewers' GM Doug Melvin, "jumped in the breech to acquire [the] right-hander," but only, "after Greinke nixed a proposed trade to Washington," which depending on your sources could have included Espinosa, Storen, pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, catching prospect Derek Norris, or potential future outfielders Michael Burgess or Destin Hood. (Yes, someone mentioned Hood.)
Even here, there is a suggestion the negotiations were still ongoing. Different names are still being thrown around as possibilities. And the trade "could have," not "would have," included these names.
So there it is. First, although Greinke possibly did privately demand a trade at some point, he didn't say anything publicly. All of the leaks about his discontent came from other teams, who as potential trade partners perhaps had a vested interest in promoting that idea whether it was true or not.
Second, all the leaks about a potential trade with the Nationals indicated negotiations still in progress when Greinke vetoed the deal. We'll never know if they would have reached an agreement even if Greinke had given his consent.