Dayton Moore at Sunday's press conference
The Royals on Sunday traded star pitcher Zack Greinke and Yuniesky Betancourt to the Brewers. In exchange, KC received shortstop Alcides Escobar, outfielder Lorenzo Cain, and right-handed pitchers Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi. The deal came amid much speculation about the Royals’ plans for Greinke, who recently expressed his desire to be traded. Inside, RC takes a detailed look at the trade.
“We felt all along that to make a deal like this, we needed to get middle of the diamond players in return to blend in with what we have coming in our system,” said Royals general manager Dayton Moore in a press conference on Sunday afternoon. “It kind of came together yesterday morning, and we’re pleased with the way it unfolded.”
Indeed, the Brewers paid a high price for the 2009 American League Cy Young Award winner, sending the Royals four talented young players, three of whom will have a chance to contribute immediately at the big league level.
Shortstop Alcides Escobar, who figures to be the centerpiece of the deal, is a 24-year-old shortstop with tremendous potential.
“We see him has a rangy, strong defensive oriented shortstop with hitting tools to be successful,” said Moore. “He doesn’t strike out a lot. Our guys like him. [Royals manager] Ned [Yost] loves him. Ned believes in him and feels like his swing path and approach are going to allow him to become a more consistent offensive player.”
Entering the 2010 season, the then 23-year-old Escobar was the highest-ranked shortstop prospect in all of baseball, and the 21st-best prospect overall (according to the Scout.com Top 300). He was coming off an impressive 2009 campaign, in which he hit .298/.353/.409 in Triple-A before finishing the year in Milwaukee, where he batted .304/.333/.368 in 38 games.
Escobar’s production fell off dramatically in 2010, however, thanks largely to a second half in which he hit just .224/.272/.323. He finished the season with just two home runs and a .244 batting average, to go along with a .301 on-base percentage.
Nevertheless, most scouts and analysts agree that Escobar is a high ceiling player who has yet to tap into his true offensive potential. A career .293 hitter in over 2500 minor league at bats, he appears to be the victim of some bad luck in 2010. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was just .264, which is about 30 points below average, suggesting he hit into more than his fair share of hard outs.
At his best, Escobar is a gold-glove caliber shortstop capable of making several highlight-reel plays a week. At the plate, he has the potential to be a consistent .300 hitter with a little pop.
The young Venezuelan also possesses plus speed, and he was a very successful basestealer in the minor leagues, swiping 176 bags during his six years in the Brewers’ system (including 42 in 2009). With Milwaukee in 2010, he attempted just 14 stolen bases (10 successfully), although former Brewers manager Ken Macha was notoriously stingy with the green light. Expect Escobar to run more often under Ned Yost in 2011.
Of course, Escobar was just one of the “middle of the diamond players” the Royals received. The other was 24-year-old center fielder Lorenzo Cain, a dynamic athlete who hit .306/.348/.415 in 43 games during his 2010 Major League debut.
“A lot of our scouts felt that he fit for us going forward,” said Moore of Cain. “He is another player that blends in with who we are and what we have coming in our system.”
Moore praised Cain’s work ethic and make-up, calling him a “polished person” who should step in and become the Royals’ starting center fielder in 2011. For the Brewers in 2010, Cain made several spectacular plays, and he covers tremendous ground in the outfield while possessing an above average center field arm.
Cain was selected as a draft-and-follow in the 17th round of the 2004 draft, signing with the Brewers in April 2005. During his six years in the Brewers’ farm system, he compiled a career line of .291/.366/.416 with 31 home runs in 584 games. Injuries limited him to just 60 games in 2009, when he hit just .218/.294/.330, but he bounced back this season with an offensive breakout.
Cain split 2010 between Double-A Huntsville and Triple-A Nashville, hitting .317/.402/.432 in 331 at bats before becoming the Brewers’ starting center fielder in early August. Scouts across baseball took note of his impressive tools.
“Many scouts that came through here last year that saw him late from other organizations were raving about this kid’s upside,” said Moore.
At the plate, Cain shows excellent bat speed and promising plate discipline with enough projection left to develop moderate power. On the bases, he’s a burner who stole 124 bases in the minor leagues at nearly an 80 percent success rate. For the Brewers in 2010, he swiped seven bases while being caught just once.
Cain, for his part, seemed excited about the trade.
“I haven’t really followed Kansas City that much, but from what I hear, there are a lot of young guys like myself that are coming up and trying to establish themselves right now,” said Cain in an interview with MLB.com on Sunday. “I’m excited to get to work with these guys, and guys that are around my age. I think it’s going to be fun, and I’m just ready to get started.”
The final big league-ready player the Royals acquired was right-handed pitcher Jeremy Jeffress, who will have an opportunity to win a spot in the Kansas City bullpen this spring. The 23-year-old fireballer was the Brewers’ first round pick in the 2006 draft, but his career has been marred by a pair of lengthy suspensions after twice testing positive for marijuana.
Jeffress was most recently tagged with a 100-game suspension in June 2009, which carried over into the 2010 season. When he returned this summer, the young right-hander blew threw three levels of the minor leagues, holding opposing hitters to a miniscule .157 batting average while fanning 43 in 32.1 innings of work. He finished with a stellar 2.23 ERA, and he earned his first promotion to the big leagues in September.
In 10 appearances with the Brewers, Jeffress posted a 2.70 ERA while fanning eight batters in 10.0 innings pitched. Following the season, he reported to the Arizona Fall League, where he continued to dominate. In the nationally-televised “Rising Stars” game, Jeffress wowed scouts and viewers alike with a fastball that was clocked as high as 101 mph.
Jeffress’ talent has never been a question. Rather, the only thing holding him back has always been his off-the-field troubles. Before comparing his upside to that of Detroit reliever Joel Zumaya’s, Moore expressed confidence that Jeffress has moved past those issues.
“We feel very comfortable with who he is and the track that he is on as a person,” said Moore. “We spent a lot of time dissecting that. He was teammates with several of our players in the Arizona Fall League. Art Stewart spent a lot of time with him and saw all 10 of his outings this past year in the Arizona Fall League.”
Jeffress features that upper-90s fastball that tops out in the triple digits, along with a plus hard breaking ball that generates silly swings-and-misses. His command has been an issue in the past – he has walked 188 batters in 306.2 career minor league innings – but his stuff is absolutely electric when he’s on.
Finally, the Royals also acquired a longer-term project in pitcher Jake Odorizzi. The 20-year-old right-hander was the Brewers’ supplemental first round selection in the 2008 draft, and most observers ranked him as Milwaukee’s top prospect this offseason.
This past season, Odorizzi dominated the Low-A Midwest League, posting a 7-3 record and 3.43 ERA en route to being named as the Brewers’ minor league pitcher of the year. In 120.2 innings pitched for the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, the young right-hander fanned 135 batters while walking just 40 and holding opponents to a .220 batting average.
“He’s somebody that we’ve seen in the Midwest League and really had an exceptional season,” said Moore. “He fits in with a group of young pitchers we have coming.”
Indeed, while the Royals have the best farm system in baseball, the vast majority of the starting pitching prospects are left handed. Odorizzi will rank among the organization’s best right-handed prospects, thanks to a boring fastball that tops out around 95 and three offspeed pitches that all show the potential of developing into plus offerings. Odorizzi will begin the 2011 season with High-A Wilmington, but he’s an advanced arm who could move relatively quickly.
All told, the Royals brought in an impressive haul. Making the decision to pull the trigger on trading a homegrown player of Greinke’s pedigree certainly wasn’t an easy decision for Moore, and he made it clear he will continue to wish the former Royals’ ace well.
“I really celebrate the fact that Zack was able to accomplish what he did here in Kansas City,” said Moore. “It’s a terrific story. A big part of my heart will always pull for Zack. It’s not easy to make these types of deals. “
Ultimately, however, Moore said the decision was focused on achieving one single goal.
“The bottom line is we win more games in the future, and this puts us in a better position to win games beyond 2012.”