Is a Zack Greinke return to Kansas City possible? (And should the Royals do it?)

The Astros are down 2-1 to the Braves in the World Series and face a crucial game four Saturday evening at Truist Park in Atlanta. Shortly before Friday’s game three, Astros manager Dusty Baker announced that Zack Greinke would be activated and start the important, and perhaps series-defining game:

Without a doubt, the Astros decision to start Greinke in the World Series stirs up all kinds of emotions among Royals fans, as evidenced by the Athletic’s Alec Lewis sharing the post below:

Without a doubt, Greinke is one of the most polarizing players in Royals history, especially in the post-Ewing Kauffman era. Greinke accomplished some incredible feats during his time in Kansas City. In the winter of 2009, Dayton Moore made one of his first major moves in his early career as Royals general manager, as he signed Greinke to a four-year extension which bought out his two remaining arbitration years.

The decision seemed to be a win-win for the Royals as well as the young ace.

In the first season of his extension, Greinke posted a 2.16 ERA, which led the league, and he also struck out 242 batters in 229.1 innings pitched for the Royals that season. For his efforts, Greinke not only earned his first All-Star nod, but he also won the AL Cy Young award that season as well.

Unfortunately, things went south between the Royals and Greinke from there.

While Greinke threw 220 innings in 2010, his ERA rose to 4.17, and his strikeout per nine went from 9.5 in 2009 to 7.4 in 2010. Add that with a bad individual W-L record (10-14), another rough team performance (they went 67-95), and a mid-season managerial change (they fired Trey Hillman after 35 games and replaced him with Ned Yost), and it’s easy to see why the relationship between Greinke and the Royals soured. Greinke desired to be on a winning club, and after the 2010 season, it seemed like the Royals were still in a clear rebuild, and would be years away from being in postseason contention.

With Greinke’s clear desire to leave Kansas City made known, Moore made the blockbuster trade with the Milwaukee Brewers that offseason that not only brought Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain to the Royals but also brought in other players (Jeremy Jeffress, Jake Odorizzi) who were used in key deals that helped build the winning clubs from 2013-2017. While it was tough for the Royals to lose one of the best pitchers in the American League, the Royals wouldn’t have won back-to-back pennants and a World Series title in 2015 without trading away Greinke.

Since then, Royals fans have been on both sides of the Greinke argument. Some have been unable to forgive Greinke for wanting to leave Kansas City, even though that was a rough period of time for Royals players and fans alike. However, some Royals fans have moved on, and appreciate Greinke for all he did in Kansas City, in addition to his quirkiness on and off the field.

And thus, with Greinke becoming a free agent at the conclusion of the World Series, and the Royals in need of a veteran pitcher to help solidify and mentor the young rotation, Royals fans are asking themselves a big question:

Will the Royals and Greinke be reunited in Kansas City in 2022?

And if there is a possibility, would such a deal be beneficial to the Royals in 2022 and beyond?

The first hurdle that needs to be cleared is whether or not Greinke wants to continue playing in 2022 and whether or not he would like to finish his career in Kansas City.

On the surface level, Greinke is 38-years-old, and he is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career. That being said, “worst” for Greinke is still pretty good when compared to the Royals’ current starting pitching, which ranked 24th last season in starting pitcher ERA, according to Fangraphs. Greinke only pitched 171 innings and made 30 appearances and 29 starts, but he posted a 4.16 ERA, his worst mark since 2016. Furthermore, he only accumulated a 1.3 fWAR, his lowest total in this category since his 2006 season in Kansas City (he only pitched 6.1 innings that year).

However, when diving deeper into his Statcast metrics, Greinke does still have an intriguing profile, even if he is not the “elite” pitcher that he once was. Let’s take a look at his percentile rankings via Baseball Savant:

As Royals fans can see, Greinke doesn’t possess the fastball velocity that he once had, as he only averaged 88.9 MPH on his four-seamer this year, which ranked in the bottom 7th percentile. This also affected some other metrics that he traditionally has done well in, such as K and whiff rate (which rated in the 11th and 18th percentiles, respectively). Thus, with Greinke’s recent struggles to punch batters out, many Royals fans may feel like Greinke would not be worth any kind of deal, even if it is only a one or two-year contract.

On the other hand, while the Royals obviously would not be getting the same Greinke from 2009, Greinke still possesses a crafty ability to get batters out and limit hard contact. Greinke ranked in the 73rd percentile in terms of hard-hit rate allowed (which was 34.5 percent), and he also saw his barrel rate decrease from 8.2 percent in 2020, which was a career-high, to 6.5 percent in 2021. Greinke also proved to be apt at producing groundballs from batters, as his groundball rate was 44.4 percent and his GB/FB ratio was 1.38, both significant improvements from 2020.

Greinke would thrive not only in Kauffman Stadium’s spacious grounds, but also would benefit from the Royals’ solid defense behind him, as the Royals had four Gold Glove nominees, and ranked 6th in team outs above average, according to Baseball Savant.

While Greinke was hurt by a 17.4 percent HR/FB rate in 2021, he did pitch his home games in a more “hitter-friendly” park than Kauffman Stadium. According to expected home run data from Savant, if Greinke pitched only in Kauffman last year, he would have given up only 19 home runs, significantly lower than 31 total he gave up in 2021, as well as the 34 he would have given up, had he only pitched at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

Additionally, Greinke continued to thrive with his changeup, which proved to be his best pitch, according to Savant run value data below:

In addition to his changeup generating the best run value of his six-pitch mix, it was also his best pitch in terms of wOBA allowed (.230) and K rate (21.4 percent). Greinke’s changeup was also the most effective in whiff rate of pitches he threw more than 10 percent of the time.

Greinke was particularly effective in locating his changeup down in the lower left part of the zone last season, as evidenced by his heatmap from Baseball Savant below:

Here is an example of Greinke getting the Diamondbacks’ Josh Rojas to ground out on the changeup that’s located around that red area of the heatmap above:

And in this clip below, he utilizes his changeup effectively in that low and away zone to get the “likely” MVP, Shohei Ohtani of the Angels, to strike out swinging at Angels Stadium back in August:

Greinke may not have more than one or two years left in the tank. However, if he continues to utilize his changeup in 2022 like he did in 2021, it is possible that Greinke could continue to be that 4.00 ERA pitcher with the Royals next season, should the Royals acquire him.

The Royals’ young pitchers, especially Brady Singer (who needs a changeup), Jackson Kowar, and Daniel Lynch, are in desperate need of mentoring from a veteran pitcher, especially one who has “top of the rotation” experience. While Mike Minor hasn’t been “bad” by any means, it is obvious that Minor isn’t suited to handle that No. 1 starter role in 2022, and it would probably be better for the Royals pitching staff as a whole if Brad Keller, 2021’s Opening Day starter, was lower in the rotation order as well.

Greinke does not have the most “media-friendly” personality and can be blunt at times to a fault. However, nearly every team he’s played for, especially within the past five years, has talked about how great a teammate Greinke can be, which is exactly what this Royals club needs at this time. The Athletic’s Zach Buchanan talked about how beloved Greinke was in Arizona after being traded to Houston in 2019:

Granted, the Royals should not acquire Greinke at any cost. Greinke made about $34.4 million in AAV in the last year of his deal in 2021. The Royals would need a MASSIVE cut from that in order for a return to be realistic. A two-year, $24 million deal would be a fair price for not just Greinke, who will be 40 at the end of 2023, but also the Royals, who need to think long-term with their payroll, especially with super prospects like Bobby Witt, Jr., MJ Melendez, and Nick Pratto set to debut next year.

It will be interesting to see if Greinke has buried the hatchet with the Royals and will look to finish his career with the organization he debuted with back in 2004. Greinke ranks 11th all-time in Royals bWAR, according to Baseball-Reference, and perhaps a solid final two years could solidify Greinke’s place in the Royals Hall of Fame when he finally calls it a career.

Of course, Greinke will have to want to come back to Kansas City to finish his career…and that has not been demonstrated or hinted at yet from his end.

That being said, if Greinke is willing to come back to Kansas City…and on a one-to-two-year discount, well…

Let’s just say his veteran presence and mentoring of the Royals’ young starters in the next year or two could have short and long-term benefits for the Royals.

Photo Credit: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

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