Kansas City Royals fans have not had much to cheer about in recent years, at least until Zack Greinke won the 2009 American League Cy Young Award. However, if recent baseball trends continue, Royals fans may not be celebrating for very long.
The last three AL Cy Young winners soon found themselves on new teams:
2008 - Cliff Lee, Cleveland Indians
Traded to Philadelphia in the middle of the following season.
2007 - CC Sabathia, Cleveland Indians
Traded to Milwaukee in the middle of the following season.
2006 - Johan Santana, Minnesota Twins
Traded to the Mets after the following season.
Greinke, like Lee, Sabathia and Santana before him, has won the award while playing for a small-market team that does not figure to be able to compete for his services once Greinke is eligible for free agency. The Indians and Twins did not wait for their pitching stars to leave - they elected to trade them before their contracts were up so they could at least collect some prospects.
The Indians traded Lee while he still had a year and a half left on his deal. Sabathia was dealt midway through the final season of his contract. The Twins traded Santana while his contract still had a year to run.
Greinke has three years left on a four-year, $38 million contract. But if Greinke has a 2010 season anywhere near as successful as his 2009, the Royals will find themselves in the same position a year from now as the Indians did this year with Lee - facing the potential loss of a prime asset in a couple of years.
While it is too early to offer a final verdict on any of the trades involving recent Cy Young winners, the prospects acquired in these deals generally do not make up for the loss of a star pitcher.
Even if the Royals declare that they will match any offer for Greinke, they currently have no good response if Greinke declares that he wants to play for a team with "a chance to win." The Royals won only 65 games this year. Despite his microscopic 2.16 ERA, Greinke was only able to win 16 games in 33 starts. In twelve of those starts, the Royals scored two or fewer runs.
Sabathia had only four starts in which the Yankees scored two or fewer runs. The Bombers averaged 5.96 runs for each of Sabathia's starts, more than 50% higher than Greinke's run-support average of 3.78.
The Royals do not appear to have much of a chance to win anything in the next few years, especially compared to big-market teams like the Yankees.
But even if the Royals somehow become a contender by the time the issue of Greinke's free agency comes up, it will ultimately come down to money. In 2007, the year that Sabathia won his Cy Young, the Indians came within one game of the World Series. After Sabathia was traded to Milwaukee in 2008, the Brewers made the playoffs. When Santana won the Cy Young in 2006 (he also won in 2004), the Twins made the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. Despite "having a chance to win," the opportunity to land a big contract sent Sabathia and Santana to new teams.
Baseball needs to figure out a way to give small-market teams more of a chance at retaining players of the caliber of Greinke, Santana, Sabathia and Lee.
Zack Greinke was the best pitcher in either league this season. He just turned 26. Greinke is exactly the sort of young star around which the Royals can build a contender. Unfortunately for Royals fans, if Greinke ever makes it to a World Series, odds are that, as with Sabathia and Lee this year, he will be playing for another team.