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Trade Retrospective: Royals' Zack Greinke sent to Brewers for haul

Despite Greinke's persistent ace status, five years later this trade is more remembered for the group of players Kansas City received in return.

Greinke was typically stellar for the Brewers, earning 8.9 fWAR over their two seasons of control.
Greinke was typically stellar for the Brewers, earning 8.9 fWAR over their two seasons of control.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Five off-seasons ago, a blockbuster six-player trade occurred between the Kansas City Royals and Milwaukee Brewers, involving numerous pieces that remain relevant entering the 2016 season.

Looking to add a front-line starter to their revamped rotation, Milwaukee paid handsomely to pry Zack Greinke from Kansas City. With the addition of players like Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar, the Royals formed a core that would take the team to repeat World Series, winning one, in 2014 and 2015.

As always, only the initial decision is considered in this evaluation, and not later moves involving the same players that impact the perception of the original trade. The "initial decision" is defined as the value produced by players on each side of the transaction during whatever period of team control remained at the time of the trade.

A frequent problem with this Trade Retrospective series is that the teams receiving major league pieces ("the buyers") are often aware that they are sacrificing future wins for present wins, the latter of which are seen as more valuable. Previously, I've mentioned this concern without actually depreciating the value of wins in future years. This time, I'm introducing rudimentary weights to the process.

Year 2011 Value
2011 100%
2012 75%
2013 55%
2014 40%
2015 30%

Practically speaking, this means that adding 1.0 WAR to a roster in 2011 is as valuable as adding 1.33 WAR to a 2012 roster, or 1.82 WAR to a 2013 roster. Without an obvious "good way" to measure this concept, and having it be a factor that likely varies from team to team, these aren't scientific. This is instead just an attempt to get one step closer to accounting for each team's considerations at the time of a trade.

The Deal

The Milwaukee Brewers were the buyers here, receiving two years of ace starting pitcher Zack Greinke, a season of infielder Yuniesky Betancourt, and $2 million in cash considerations. In selling Greinke, the Royals received Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, Jake Odorizzi, and Jeremy Jeffress.

Greinke was Kansas City's sixth-overall pick in the 2002 draft, and quickly shot through the minors as a top-100 prospect. By 2008, he was firmly established in the Royals' rotation and by 2009, had won the AL Cy Young Award. In his time with the Royals, he produced 23.5 fWAR and a 3.59 FIP over 1108 innings.

From 2004-2010, FanGraphs ranks him as the 17th-most valuable pitcher in baseball, despite only being tied for 33rd-most innings pitched. He was entering his age-27 season with two years of team control remaining at the time of the trade.

Betancourt was a shortstop suited for a part-time utility role, but actually received at least 500 plate appearances every season in the five years leading up to the trade. His below average bat (81 wRC+, 2005-2010) was acceptable at the position, but his glove was also well-below average, even for the position. He was the least valuable player to receive at least 3000 plate appearances from 2005-2010, but even still Brewers acquired him to be the team's starting shortstop for his one remaining season of team control.

On the other side, the Royals received four interesting pieces in the deal. Escobar was known as a premium defender at shortstop and was considered Milwaukee's top prospect before graduating from eligibility in 2010. He was a two-time top-100 prospect, and had five seasons of team control remaining at the time of the trade.

Cain also exceeded rookie eligibility in 2010, but had all six years of team control remaining. He was considered a high-ceiling, athletic prospect who broke out in the upper minors in 2010, with a 136 wRC+ in AA, 118 wRC+ in AAA, and a 107 wRC+ in his 43 game major league extended look. In seasons after this trade, that offensive production combined with his elite center field defense and good base-running acumen to create one of the most dynamic players in baseball.

Jake Odorizzi was considered by some to be the best pitcher selected in the 2008 draft class, and made his full season debut in 2010 with a 3.43 ERA and 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings over 120.2 innings pitched. He was subsequently ranked as a Baseball America top-100 prospect four straight years from 2011-2014, before establishing himself as a consistent major league starter.

Jeremy Jeffress was a hard-throwing relief prospect who routinely hit 100 MPH with his fastball. He featured typically problematic command and control early in his major league career, but has also always been good at generating ground balls (a 57.4 percent career rate).

The Ripples

Brewers Transaction With To/By/With For
Yuniesky Betancourt Free Agency
Zack Greinke Traded - Angels Jean Segura
Johnny Hellweg
Ariel Pena
Johnny Hellweg MiLB Free Agency
Jean Segura Traded Tyler Wagner Diamondbacks Aaron Hill

Chase Anderson

Isan Diaz

Following the 2011 season, Yuniesky Betancourt hit free agency and then actually signed back with the Royals, where he finally served in a utility role. Then, after the 2012 season, he re-signed again with the Brewers, who promptly made him the everyday first baseman.

Greinke was again moved in 2012, this time as a trade deadline rental to the Angels. This package centered around top-100 shortstop prospect Jean Segura, and starting pitching prospects Johnny Hellweg and Ariel Pena. While Pena is still a rotation candidate for the Brewers in 2016, Hellweg hit minor league free agency following the 2015 season and signed with the San Diego Padres.

Segura was just traded with pitcher Tyler Wagner in exchange for veteran second baseman Aaron Hill, starting pitcher Chase Anderson, and infield prospect Isan Diaz. This deal also puts Greinke and Segura on the same 2016 Diamondbacks team.

Royals Transaction With To/By/With For
Jake Odorizzi Traded Wil Myers Rays James Shields
Mike Montgomery Wade Davis
Patrick Leonard Elliot Johnson
James Shields Free Agency

Elliot Johnson Claimed
Alcides Escobar Extended - Royals $15.75 M / 5 years
Lorenzo Cain Extended - Royals $17.5 M / 2 years
Jeremy Jeffress Purchased - Blue Jays Cash Considerations

The Royals made an effort to keep two of their key pieces from this trade, with Cain and Escobar remaining as core pieces of the World Series teams. Escobar was extended to a 5-year, $15.75 million deal with a team option for 2017, before the 2012 season. While Cain hasn't sacrificed any free agent years in his contract, the Royals did buy out his final two seasons of arbitration for $17.5 million.

Jeremy Jeffress was purchased by the Blue Jays prior to the 2013 season, but later released in April 2014. He caught back on with the Brewers, and has been lights out as a reliever with a career 2.45 ERA over 106.2 IP for the team.

Jake Odorizzi was a part of a second massively discussed trade for a different top starting pitcher. Prior to the 2013 season, he was packaged with phenom Wil Myers, starting pitching prospect Mike Montgomery, and third base prospect Patrick Leonard to the Rays for starting pitcher James Shields, relief-ace-in-hiding Wade Davis, and infielder Elliot Johnson.

The trade was controversial at the time, as the Royals didn't appear to be close enough to contention to trade their star prospect. However, the additions of Shields and Davis ended up working out nicely for the team.

The Results

Remaining Control fWAR FA Value (M) Salary (M) Surplus Value (M) Surplus Value - Adj (M)
Zack Greinke 0 8.8 $62.10 $27.00 $35.10 $30.43
Yuniesky Betancourt 0 -0.1 $(0.90) $4.30 $(5.20) $(5.20)
Cash Considerations $2.00 $- $2.00 $2.00
Lorenzo Cain 2 16.0 $120.60 $4.26 $116.34 $48.36
Alcides Escobar 0 9.9 $73.10 $10.43 $62.67 $37.58
Jeremy Jeffress 4 1.3 $4.30 $1.94 $2.36 $0.36
Jake Odorizzi 4 5.3 $41.00 $1.02 $39.98 $14.00
Brewers Total 0 8.7 $63.20 $31.30 $31.90 $27.23
Royals Total 10 32.5 $239.00 $17.65 $221.35 $100.30

As one can see, even when attempting to depreciate future wins, it is hard to envision a scenario where the Brewers won this trade, from a surplus value perspective. At a total of $27 million over two years, Greinke was well worth his salary. However, the recent production of Cain, Escobar, and Odorizzi at such low costs makes the judgement fall firmly in favor of the Royals.

Over the last two seasons, Lorenzo Cain has emerged as one of the best players in baseball and came in third-place for the AL MVP Award in 2015. He's been worth a total of 16.0 fWAR over his first four seasons of team control, for next to no money. Escobar has become a very steady, durable shortstop, good for somewhere between 1.0-2.0 fWAR per season.

While he was again traded to Tampa Bay two starts into his major league career, Odorizzi has now put up back-to-back strong seasons for the Rays, under the same period of team control that the Royals acquired in the initial trade.

The unadjusted surplus value metrics say that the Royals' return has produced 6.94 times as much value as the Brewers received from Greinke and Betancourt. Even my first attempt at an adjusted comparison still puts Kansas City ahead by a factor of 3.68.

In defense of the Brewers, the profile of the prospects they sent the Royals contained a lot of risk. Toolsy, athletic up-the-middle bats with questionable power profiles fail pretty frequently. So do 19-year old starting pitchers, and hard-throwing relief prospects with control problems. In projecting the package of four prospects, the expected value is likely decreased significantly based purely on the built in projection of failure.

Unfortunately for the Brewers, all four players sent to the Royals in the Zack Greinke trade have either met, or exceeded a reasonable expectation for their ceilings. For that reason, it seems safe to say that the Royals have won this trade.

. . .

Spencer Bingol is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpencerBingol.