Time is right for Greinke to don Royal blue again

March 18th, 2022

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The last time wore No. 23 in Royal blue, he admitted “it wasn’t the right place for him” at that time. That was 12 years ago, when Greinke was 26 years old and Kansas City was going through a major rebuild.

In 2022, Greinke is back in a Royals uniform and wearing No. 23. This time, the place is right. The timing is right. And the reasons for returning are right.

Greinke joined Royals camp Thursday after the club signed him to a one-year deal Wednesday, bringing the future Hall of Famer back to the organization that drafted him No. 6 overall in 2002.

It’s a return that has been in the making for the past several years. The Royals have wanted to bring Greinke back since 2018 or ’19, and Greinke has been thinking about coming back since he saw Kansas City’s playoff runs in '14 and ‘15, he said in his first meeting with media Thursday.

“Coming back and playing against them and seeing how the town and fans [have] changed since I was in Kansas City,” Greinke said. “How much excitement was there. It was really neat to see. And then even a couple years after that, when the team wasn’t quite as good, there was still a lot of excitement. I thought it was great for the city of Kansas City.

“It felt like it would be a place that I would be real happy and comfortable being part of again. Each year, especially the past couple years, it started feeling more like a good place for me to go.”

For Greinke, a free agent this offseason, the feeling turned into reality. The Royals wanted a veteran pitcher to join the staff and recognized the sentimental value of bringing Greinke back. They had the payroll flexibility after moving Mike Minor’s salary off the books in a trade with the Reds on Wednesday, although sources told MLB.com that Greinke showed a willingness to take less money if it meant coming to Kansas City.

The timing was helped even more by Major League Baseball implementing the universal designated hitter.

Yes, taking away pitchers hitting in the National League gave Greinke -- one of the best-hitting pitchers in the game -- that final push to sign with an American League team.

“This was a team I singled out that I wanted to play for,” Greinke said. “It was my No. 1 choice. The only thing that would have made it a little tough is if the pitchers were still allowed to hit, and then that would open a lot of teams I would want to play for in the National League.”

Greinke has not yet lobbied for an at-bat, but that is bound to happen. The 38-year-old is a career .225 hitter and is both one home run and one steal away from double digits -- two milestones he has said he wants to accomplish.

“I’ve talked to one of my buddies, and I just want to hit when he pitches against us,” Greinke said, declining to say who the pitcher is. “Maybe we could work that out. Just hit when he’s pitching, then it’ll be like five to six innings, so it’ll be two to three at-bats. And then someone will come in for me after that. Maybe it’ll work out if one of our DHs is kind of hurt, and we only have lefty options.”

The Royals are well aware of Greinke’s affinity toward hitting.

“That’s one of the first things I told him,” president of baseball operations Dayton Moore jokingly said Wednesday. “'Look, if we give you a chance to hit, will you come to Kansas City?' He just laughed. He’s a terrific player.”

Moore was a major reason for Greinke’s return, even after being the one who traded Greinke to the Brewers in December 2010 for a package that included Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar and Jake Odorizzi, as well as the one who traded Odorizzi to the Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis -- all crucial pieces of the Royals’ postseason successes that Greinke mentioned Thursday.

Through it all, Moore kept up with Greinke until he was finally able to bring the pitcher back to the organization.

“Dayton’s the best,” Greinke said. “If it wasn’t for him and the person he is and how he treats people -- he’s a very, very, very high reason I wanted to come back.”

Adding Greinke infuses the Royals with talent and a pitcher who can be counted on for innings, and he made clear Thursday that this isn’t going to be his final year pitching. But what the signing also does is give the bevy of young Kansas City starters a model of success they can learn from right away.

And the opportunity to work with the inexperienced yet talented starters appealed to Greinke because of what he experienced when he was a young pitcher in Kansas City. The Royals signed right-hander Gil Meche before the 2007 season, and Greinke said he learned a lot from Meche’s reliability as a starter the next three years.

“Hoping to help out as many players as possible if needed here,” Greinke said. “I think I could be valuable to that.”

In his career, Greinke is 219-132 with a 3.41 ERA and 2,809 strikeouts. He is an AL Cy Young Award winner, a six-time All-Star, a six-time Gold Glove Award winner, a two-time Silver Slugger Award winner and a two-time MLB ERA title holder.

“The ability for our guys to watch a Cy Young winner,” manager Mike Matheny said. “A perennial Gold Glover. A guy who has accomplished everything there is in this game. For them to watch him go about his business has the potential to really fast-forward their growth and improvement. I was able to tell Zack even before he made his decision that we believe a number of these guys are looking and wanting to be a top-tier pitcher.

“They need to see what it looks like.”