Greinke back in Royals hat 12 years after he was traded away

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Royals hat still fit slightly askew on Zack Greinke’s head Thursday, but so much else had changed in the two decades after Kansas City selected the future Cy Young Award winner in the draft and the 12 years since he was traded away.

The right-hander’s been to five more All-Star games. He’s won six Gold Gloves. He’s made millions of dollars while pitching in important postseason games for the Brewers, Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Astros.

Yet as far back as 2019, Greinke pondered what it would be like to play for Kansas City again. And that will finally transpire after he signed a $13 million contract that includes up to $2 million in performance bonuses for the upcoming season.

“I’m hoping to have a lot of fun this year,” said Greinke, making it clear this probably isn’t his last. “This is a team I singled out that I wanted to play for. It was my No. 1 choice. The only thing that would have made it a little tough is if pitchers would still be allowed to hit. That would have opened up a lot of teams I would want to play for in the National League.”

He’ll have to settle for a pinch-hit at-bat in Kansas City.

The 38-year-old Greinke was the sixth overall pick of the Royals in the 2002 draft, and he spent his first six seasons with the club, winning the Cy Young Award during his standout 2009 season. He was traded to the Brewers the following year for a package of players that formed the basis of the Royals’ back-to-back AL champion teams.

It was while watching those postseason runs, and the Royals’ title in 2015, that Greinke saw a city energized by baseball.

“And playing against them and seeing how the town and the fans and how much has changed since I was in Kansas City,” he explained. “It was really neat to see, and even then a couple years after that when the team wasn’t as good, there was still a lot of excitement. I just thought it was great for the city of Kansas City when that was going on.”

Greinke, who just might love hitting more than pitching, spent just over a season in Milwaukee before his he was traded to the Angels. He then spent three seasons across town with the Dodgers, where he finished second in Cy Young voting in 2015, before pitching four seasons for the Diamondbacks and the past three with the Astros.

He went 11-6 with a 4.16 ERA and one complete game in 29 starts for Houston last season. He also hit two singles in the World Series loss to Atlanta.

Asked whether he ever anticipated returning to Kansas City, Greinke replied: “Didn’t really think about it too much.”

“It wasn’t the right place for me at that time. Milwaukee was a perfect place for me,” Greinke continued, “and I had a great time there, and most teams I’ve ben on, that’s where I was supposed to be at that time. At that time, I didn’t think Kansas City was the right place. And I think it’s proven right. Kansas City did great after I left and it worked out good for me, too.”

They’re back together again, and with some milestones in sight: Greinke has 219 wins over 18 years in the big leagues, seven behind Justin Verlander among active pitchers, and he needs just 191 strikeouts to reach 3,000 for his career.

Greinke still believes he can win plenty of ballgames, but he also understands that he’s suddenly the elder statesman of a rotation that could be among the youngest in baseball. Brad Keller is the next oldest at 26 years old, and Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, Daniel Lynch, Carlos Hernandez and Jackson Kowar are even younger.

“It was one of the things he talked about right away when we had conversations,” Royals manager Mike Matheny said. “He believes he has something to bring to these guys. He knows it. People are going to be watching everything he does.”

Besides the chance to return to a baseball-mad city — one that was hardly that way his first time around — the other appeal of signing with Kansas City for Greinke was reuniting with club president Dayton Moore. He was the general manager back then, and an important figure in helping Greinke deal with some anxiety issues that nearly derailed his career.

The two had dinner this week and it was clear that a fondness between them remains.

“I love watching Zack pitch. I love watching him go about his work between starts, his side sessions,” Moore said. “He is a professional and someone who takes pitching very, very seriously, he reads swings well — always has. Always has been advanced for his level of experience when he was very, very young, and like I said, he knows how to dissect hitters and he makes pitching a true art form, and to me, those are my greatest memories of Zack, watching him pitch and compete.”

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