The best bargain of the winter?

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The Yankees, as usual, made headlines this winter with the signings of big-name free agents CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira, but lowly Kansas City may well have made the shrewdest move of the offseason on Monday by inking right-hander Zack Greinke to a four-year, $38 million deal. In doing so, the Royals bought out the emerging ace’s first two years of free agency and showed their fans that they’re serious about getting the once-proud franchise back on track.

Greinke isn’t a big name - yet, at least - but that’s mostly because he pitches in relative obscurity for the small-market Royals. The 26-year-old ranked fifth in the American League with 183 strikeouts this past season and walked a mere 56 batters - an impressive 3.27-to-1 ratio. He made 32 starts, chewed up 202 1/3 innings and posted the league’s 10th best ERA at 3.47. Greinke’s 13-10 record in 2008 looks a lot better when you consider that the Royals finished fourth in the A.L. Central at 75-87.

There are many reasons why Greinke is a good pitcher to build a staff around, but here’s one that might fly under the radar: For the second consecutive year, he sizzled down the stretch. After pitching out of the ‘pen for much of 2007, Greinke joined the rotation late in the year and posted a 1.85 ERA over his last seven starts. You’d think that would be hard to top, but his ERA actually dipped to 1.84 over his final seven starts of 2008. Greinke’s tendency to finish strong will come in mighty handy if the Royals ever get things turned around and find themselves in a pennant race, which, of course, is the goal.

Still don’t think four years and $38 million for Greinke is a great deal? Consider this. Burnett’s deal with the Bombers will pay him $82.5 million over the next five years, which averages out to $16.5 million a season, or $7 million more than Greinke’s new average annual salary. In 2008 Greinke made just two fewer starts than Burnett and tossed just 19 fewer innings. Greinke had the superior ERA (3.47 to Burnett’s 4.07) and WHIP (1.28 to 1.34), and though Burnett had 48 more strikeouts, Greinke had the better K-to-walk ratio. Take into account Burnett’s extensive injury history and the fact that he’s more than six and a half years older than Greinke, and it’s clear the Royals got quite a bargain.

But as good of a deal as this is for Kansas City, it makes just as much sense for Greinke, who was diagnosed with social anxiety after a disastrous 2005 season and a spring training walkout that left his future very much in question in 2006. The Royals, rather than giving up on him as some teams might have, were supportive, and Greinke has gotten his condition under control and thrived since returning to the big leagues. Would he have made more money on the open market after the 2010 season? Without question. But given his history, it makes all the sense in the world for Greinke to stay somewhere that he’s comfortable. If he chose to take his chances in free agency, the Players Association would surely pressure him to follow the money. It’s doubtful it would have led back to Kansas City.

Locking up one talented young homegrown starter won’t make the Royals instant contenders, but it’s another step in the right direction for a team that has finished below .500 in 14 of the past 15 seasons. The Royals have shown a willingness to spend money on the draft, and while many of their selections haven’t panned out for one reason or another, recent first-rounders Alex Gordon and Billy Butler both have the potential to be solid big-league regulars and 2006 No. 1 overall pick Luke Hochevar could develop into a good middle-of-the-rotation starter. MiLB.com ranks Kansas City’s two most recent first-round picks, third baseman Mike Moustakas (No. 2 overall in 2007) and first baseman Eric Hosmer (No. 3 overall in 2008), among the top 30 prospects in baseball. Successful big league teams are built upon a foundation of good pitching, and seven of the Royals’ top 10 prospects according to Baseball America are pitchers. The Royals were widely mocked for signing Gil Meche to a five-year, $55 million deal two offseasons ago, but Meche has been one of the better starters in the American League since joining Kansas City. All-Star closer Joakim Soria may well go down as the best Rule V selection of all-time when it’s all said and done. And manager Trey Hillman, lured from Japan, drew rave reviews in his first season as a big-league skipper and looks like he might be just the guy to help the Royals turn the corner.

Bravo on a great signing, Kansas City. Here’s hoping your young ace continues his progression and becomes the kind of pitcher you can build a championship team around. If the Rays can climb all the way from the basement to the top of the American League, so can you. And congrats to you, Mr. Greinke, on your new deal. It took a lot of courage to battle back and conquer your demons - especially under the bright lights of big-league baseball. You’ve earned it.

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at jleblanc@washingtontimes.com.

Photo by the Associated Press

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Jay LeBlanc

Jay LeBlanc

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