Those who have followed Zack Greinke‘s career know not to underestimate the power of his baseball mind. Greinke knows as much about what goes on in baseball, both on and off the field, more than almost any active player, and I would bet more than a good number of executives. And don’t just take my word for it — take Brewers general manager Doug Melvin’s. Greinke was a member of his draft war room in 2012, and one of the first things Greinke did as a member of the Dodgers was text GM Ned Coletti to congratulate him on the club’s first-round pick, Corey Seager — Greinke loved the high school third baseman’s talent.
Thanks to a no-trade clause included in his final contract as a member of the Kansas City Royals, Greinke’s baseball mind was allowed to play a pivotal role in the winter of 2010. That December, Greinke was dealt from the Royals to the Brewers (along with Yuniesky Betancourt) in exchange for shortstop Alcides Escobar, center fielder Lorenzo Cain and pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress. It was a deal that helped the Brewers win their first and only National League Central division championship and reach the playoffs for just the second time since losing the 1982 World Series. But if not for the no-trade clause, Greinke would have been a Washington National, a move that would have radically changed the landscape of the National League.
The deal, as reported by Jon Heyman and later confirmed by MLB.com, would have sent Danny Espinosa and Drew Storen to Kansas City, as well as at least one minor league player. According to the MLB.com story, said minor leaguer might have been Jordan Zimmermann, who struggled to stay healthy in 2010 and made just seven starts at the big-league level but has established himself as one of the best pitchers in the National League in the three years since.
The Nationals had a $100 million contract extension ready for Greinke to sign if he waived the no-trade clause and became the ace of the staff (at least, until Stephen Strasburg‘s arrival). But he wasn’t convinced the Nationals were ready to win. It sounds silly — the Nationals led the National League in wins in 2012 as Greinke’s Brewers (and then Angels) floundered. But Espinosa (1.7 bWAR, .247/.315/.402 with plus defense at second base), Storen (0.8 bWAR, 2.37 ERA, 2.40 FIP in 30 1/3 innings) and Zimmermann (4.7 bWAR, 2.94 ERA, 3.51 FIP in 195.2 innings) were all critical players on the 2012 Nationals, and it’s unclear if a team with Greinke but without these three would have been of such a quality.
Meanwhile, the Royals haven’t gotten much out of the Greinke trade. Alcides Escobar was one of the league’s worst regular hitters in 2013 and has been 57 runs below average with the bat in his three years as a Royal. Lorenzo Cain has shown to be an excellent center fielder when healthy but has played just 176 games in the past two seasons — something that was an issue when he was in Milwaukee’s minor league system as well. Jake Odorizzi was jettisoned in the James Shields-Wil Myers trade, but has made the major leagues with Tampa Bay. Jeremy Jeffress is now toiling in the Blue Jays minor league system after flaming out with the Royals.
Espinosa fell off a cliff in 2013, but his natural position was shortstop and he was a much better hitter than Escobar ever was. Zimmermann would certainly be the best non-Shields pitcher on Kansas City’s staff, and might even be better than Shields. Storen would’ve fit right into one of the best young bullpens in baseball with the Royals, along with Greg Holland and Aaron Crow. And they likely wouldn’t have felt the need to deal Wil Myers, who has looked like a superstar with Tampa Bay, for James Shields prior to the 2013 season.
The Brewers, meanwhile, would have had to search for more pitching help on the trade market and likely would have had to settle for a much lesser pitcher than Greinke. Milwaukee won the division title by six games, but they didn’t have a clear fifth starter without Greinke and his 3.6 WAR — enough to at least introduce a little uncertainty into the result. And they wouldn’t have picked up promising young shortstop Jean Segura in the subsequent trade of Greinke to the Angels — a clear win for Milwaukee in exchange for just two months of Greinke’s services.
And what about the Dodgers? The 2013 free agent market didn’t have another pitcher of Greinke’s caliber thanks to the Phillies’ decision to lock up Cole Hamels to a big deal. They likely would have had to go fishing on a Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana or Dan Haren type. Greinke looks like a fixture atop Los Angeles’s rotation aside Clayton Kershaw, and it’s unlikely the Dodgers would have been able to swing a trade or a free agent contract for a similar pitcher given the current barren pitching markets.
And all because Greinke wasn’t convinced the Nationals could win, a decision that looks quite reasonable given Milwaukee’s playoff appearance in 2011 and the players Washington would have had to give up in order to acquire him. Greinke’s baseball mind just might be the most powerful in the game right now — something to remember 20 years down the line, when Greinke just might be ascending an organizational ladder to become the next brilliant general manager.