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Signed RF-R Jeff Francoeur to a one-year, $2.5 million contract, with a mutual option for 2012. [12/8]
Signed OF-S Melky Cabrera to a one-year, $1.25 million contract. [12/10]
Designated RHP Philip Humber for assignment. [12/15]
Lost RHP Philip Humber to the A’s on a waiver claim; designated INF-S Lance Zawadzki for assignment. [12/17]
Traded RHP Zack Greinke, SS-R Yuniesky Betancourt, and cash to the Brewers for RHPs Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress, SS-R Alcides Escobar, and CF-R Lorenzo Cain. [12/19]

One way to look at this is that the Royals got lots of stuff, and four useful players: two power arms, and two solid up-the-middle prospects. It’s easy to dicker on who the best of the four might be’well, best of three, since Cain is perhaps solidly resigned to being the fourth of four prospects’but whatever else, Dayton Moore acquired depth and buzz-worthy talent. Whether he got enough for two years of a staff ace at sub-market pricing, however, is the question we’ll get to last.

Odorizzi is arguably the prize, because he’s an athletic, hard-throwing prospect with consistent 90-something velocity and a nice breaker with the upside to be a quality starter in the front end of a rotation (albeit perhaps shy of acedom). Just as happily, the Brewers have handled him carefully since making him a supplemental first-rounder in 2008. If the estimate that he reaches the majors to stay in 2013 is correct, he’ll be just 23 years old when he’s in a position to give the Royals an answer on his potential, assuming no injuries in the meantime.

Next up might be Escobar, because good help at short is hard to find, and the Venezuelan was the Brewers’ top position-playing prospect heading into his rookie campaign in 2010. The expectation of his eventual upside at the plate before the season might have been something along the lines of a fast Deivi Cruz or’dare we say it, a young Yuniesky Betancourt’as a hitter capable of an average in the .280s with 30-doubles power. Unfortunately, Escobar’s rookie season was a bit of a disappointment, in that he hit just .235/.288/.326 with a .232 True Average, and his fielding performance generally graded out as adequate between nFRAA, Plus/Minus, and Total Zone.

So, it was rough, but he was also a 23-year-old rookie making his way, his power was consistent with what he’d done in the minors, and turned loose, he ought to manage more than 10 steals after managing 34 and 46 in the previous two seasons. Another half-full/half-empty proposition might involve his walk rate, in that managing to top five percent wasn’t Alfredo Griffin-level flailure and was better than Cruz ever managed in any single season in his career, but it wasn’t good. And adapting to the majors as a fielder isn’t always an overnight proposition; he could still settle in as a premium defender. The expectation for what he’s capable of should be much the same as it was before his rookie season: a top glove and a bat who will produce some sock.

The third guy, Jeffress, should be a premium reliever, setting up Joakim Soria from April until whenever it is that either the Mexicutioner gets dealt, fails to vest or earn club options for 2012-14, or Opening Day, 2015. Just as you can fidget over whether any pitcher will still be healthy five years from now before we start dickering over whether Jeffress will ever wind up a premium closer, what adding him does for Dayton Moore is create the possibility that Soria resumes starting as his avocation. In the meantime, it isn’t hard to envision a quality bullpen stocked with youngsters at some point in the 2011 season, with Aaron Crow and Tim Collins potentially joining Jeffress in handing over those occasional Royals leads to Soria by season’s end.

The fourth prospect, Cain, deserves the label as well as the other three, because he’s a fairly safe bet to wind up as a playable everyday center fielder for much of the next five seasons or so that he’ll be under Royals club control. Afield, he has the range and the arm to be a quality defender. At the plate, six seasons into his pro career his walk rate has been generally good, topping 11 percent last year, although it’s worth noting that he spent a good chunk of the season in his third partial spin in Double-A. Against that cautionary note is the fact that he didn’t start playing baseball until high school, suggesting he has some adaptive potential. His speed hasn’t really zig-zagged around as his seasonal stolen-base tallies suggest, because the same hole in his hitting performance record was caused by a sprained knee that ruined his 2009 season and cut him down from his usual ~30 attempts. He hit for more power in the lower minors, so I wouldn’t rule out his shot at 30 doubles and 10 triples in a couple of campaigns. Add the glove, walks, and good plate coverage with a bat that’s far from slappy, and you have a good non-star regular at an up-the-middle position.

Again, in those terms, that winds up looking like a fairly good package. Jeffress should star soonest, but Escobar will be starting at short come Opening Day. Cain shouldn’t be too far behind when his primary competition for outfield playing time will be rented filler like Melky and Frenchy, but he’ll also be contending with David Lough in-house. Manager Ned Yost is familiar with all three from his days with the Brewers, so there shouldn’t be a question of whether the relatively new skipper won’t like the cut of any one kid’s jib, so an optimistic way of looking at the ready-now trio is that what upside they have seems that much more likely to be realized. And three or four years from now, Odorizzi might be a quality right-hander to stick amongst a left-leaning rotation manned by John Lamb, Chris Dwyer, Danny Duffy, and/or Mike Montgomery.

Another, less generous way to look at it is that the Royals might only wind up with a good reliever with suspension potential, a Low-A arm not better than what they already had in the system, and two filler up-the-middle players with no real star potential. Kansas City gave up two years of Zack Greinke at $27 million, or less than he’d command as a free agent, even after a bad year, though only one season removed from the best season ever delivered by a Royals rotation regular. To be entirely fair to the Royals, he’s a guy with his own past issues as far as absolute reliability beyond questions of his ability as a pitcher.

If this deal seems a little light to you in terms of return, you’re not alone. Maybe Greinke’s limited no-trade protection put the Royals in an especially difficult situation, but if this is really all that two years of an ace brings you in December, that would suggest they’d have been better off holding onto him, and folding up any trade negotiations until later. Not that everybody is going to get what the Rangers got from the Braves at the deadline for Mark Teixeira in 2007, but a year and a half of control while trying to make a run at a pennant has a way of pressuring bidders into action. If this was the best deal they could get for Greinke now, the absence of any one definite difference-maker for the fortunes of the franchise strikes me as a squandered opportunity to convert Greinke into a more certain component of any future success they might aspire to. As good as Jeffress might be, relievers aren’t the rarest of rare assets, Cain might be no better than the veterans he’ll contend with, and Escobar could be nothing more than a more affordable defensive upgrade on Betancourt.

Which is why I figure Odorizzi has to be seen as the key player in the deal, putting off any question of an immediate reckoning. If Jeffress is just a useful reliever and the position players wind up no more than placeholders, this could still end up going well for the Royals, because they might have effectively kicked the can, getting the other stuff while exchanging two years of a quality right-hander in 2011-12 for six at less expense in 2013 or 2014 through to 2018 or 2019. That’s if Odorizzi avoids injury and winds up fulfilling the expectation that he’s a quality starter who ranks among the front three of a promising Royals rotation of the long-term future. Looking at the talent in the organization and the bleak possibilities of the present, you can understand why Moore felt motivated to make an exchange of that nature, but balanced against that are the frustrated expectations that he was supposed to yield more, instead of more promises of a better day in the future.

The other factor worth bringing up is the question of whether the Royals are punting payroll on both seasons, to the point that they might draw some union complaints. Absent Greinke, the Royals’ payroll also plummets toward the lowest rungs, and given their commitment of $4 million to sign Cabrera and Francoeur to stock their only seemingly obvious holes on the roster, it isn’t like they have much else they really need to shop for. Paid attendance had already dropped below 20,000 per game while remaining 25th overall in the game; that seems likely to fall lower still while the club concedes that fourth place in the division the next couple of years might be too lofty a goal. That was already the case with Greinke in the fold, however, and perhaps even if he bounced all the way back to his 2008-09 levels of performance.

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Signed C-R Wil Nieves to a one-year, $775,000 contract. [12/10]
Outrighted RHP Josh Butler. [12/17]
Traded RHPs Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress, SS-R Alcides Escobar, and CF-R Lorenzo Cain to the Royals for RHP Zack Greinke, SS-R Yuniesky Betancourt, and cash. [12/19]

Last year, the Brewers finished 28th in the major leagues in starter innings pitched, and 27th in rotation-wide SNLVAR generated. That was an improvement on their 2009 performance, when they finished 27th in innings pitched and 30th and SNLVAR, but that wasn’t perhaps quite the improvement they expected when they signed Randy Wolf and Doug Davis to give Yovani Gallardo company. In the course of those two seasons, the Brewers squandered the production of that enviable offensive core of Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart. Now they’re down to their last campaign with Fielder, with a lone playoff appearance to show for it with their 90 wins in 2008, while playing in a division that took just 91 wins to take in each of the last two years. But despite a division with declining standards for contention, the Brewers lost ground, and ghastly starting pitching was the most obvious suspect.

So, consistent with planners and leaders and generals and general managers from time immemorial, Doug Melvin is re-fighting those campaigns, and rather than settle for more Jeff Suppan-level solutions and digging up the next Doug Davis, Melvin has gone out and acquired what the free market did not have on offer in any number, spending prospects to acquire quality starting pitching. Trading for Shaun Marcum already armed the Brewers with a quality starter for the next two seasons, but dealing Brett Lawrie was just the first step in a massive amount of prospect off-loading to try and get at least one more divisional flaglet or wild-card invitation to October. As the Giants just demonstrated, anything can happen once you get there, and if you’re armed with your own stock of quality starting pitching, you can beat anybody, even the latest employer of Cliff Lee. It’s an entirely sensible adaptation to a market where few top free agents are going to decide that they’ve always wanted to spend their best years in Milwaukee.

Melvin thus repeated the same play he’d made for Marcum, but for higher stakes, getting 2009 AL Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, under contract through 2012 for $27 million, for a quartet of prospects. There is no other way the Brewers would get a pitcher this good for that kind of price tag’they will never get a pitcher with Greinke’s demonstrated level of effectiveness as a free agent, leaving them with the choices of growing one of their own, or trading for him. They’ve done both in the past’developing Gallardo, and adding CC Sabathia for their successful stretch run in ’08.

To merely call this deal a win/win trade understates what the Brewers achieved, because their medium-term future with Lawrie at second, Jeffress in the pen, and Cain in center wasn’t guaranteed to do much more than deliver more of the immediate same, 80-win teams and honorable also-rans. By the time Odorizzi might have arrived, Melvin’s head could have long since rotted off the pointed stick it might have been mounted on after not getting any more than one wild-card appearance from a win-now cadre of talent.

So, no more half-measures. If the Reds can win the NL Central, then going for it seems like an appropriate order for the day. Can Greinke deliver? Setting aside his problems with social anxiety and depression as something that’s hopefully, permanently part of his past and not his future, there’s every reason to think so. He delivered the 20th-best season of all time via SNWP in 2009, and he hasn’t hurt his arm since. He’s moving to the DH-less league and into a more pitcher-friendly park than Kauffman Stadium. His strikeout rate dropped in 2010 from his career-high 26.5 percent in ’09, but just below 20 percent (19.7), or still ace-worthy, and it should bounce back in 2011. He’s been remarkably consistent over the last three years as a rotation regular as far as the things he had control over, which is why his SIERA in 2010 was a half-run lower than his ERA at 3.71, similar to his 2008 performance (3.58 SIERA).

Using runs instead of earned runs as the better criterion, he managed quality starts through the first six innings of 23 of his 33 starts in 2010, with four getting subsequently blown later in-game. Here again, that should be repeatable at the very least, with the Brewers’ significantly improved bullpen thanks to the arrivals of John Axford and Zach Braddock making for a better relief crew than last year’s Royals had going for them. Less happily, he’s a fly-ball pitcher who will be joining a team that has to live with Hart’s immobility in right and no easy answer for who starts in center at present, either the annually disappointing Carlos Gomez and Chris Dickerson.

Where does this leave the Brewers’ rotation in 2011? Qualitatively, it’s division-winning caliber, and a credit to Melvin’s creativity. It is at least a unit that finally measures up to the offense in terms of quality, because with Greinke and Marcum joining Gallardo and Wolf, they have an excellent front four armed with defense-independent swing-and-miss stuff. You can even add probable fifth man Chris Narveson to that category, which is just as well given a defense that fell from 23rd to 25th in PADE last year. (Although nFRAA perhaps singularly suggests that Betancourt might help with that after putting up a significantly better 2010 than his equally ghastly 2009 or 2008 seasons.)

Will it be enough to win the division in 2011? The Cubs, Cardinals, and Reds are far from invincible. It’s a strong enough unit in itself, certainly, although you can see how Melvin might want to fish around for a rental vet for center’perhaps the Red Sox will pass Mike Cameron back’and at shortstop. The bill, however, should come due in 2013, when the combination of an emptied-out farm system and a few likely defections via free agency might slam shut what’s left of the window for this core. That’s better than letting it close already, however, since this represents only the second truly contending core of talent the organization has ever really had going for it. And if success breeds loyalty’as well as boosts attendance and local revenue’then perhaps the future beyond 2012 isn’t quite so dire.