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Old 05-25-2003, 03:01 AM  
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Posnanski: Greinke has makings of a star

http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansas...ts/5938989.htm

Royals minor-leaguer Greinke has makings of a special star
By JOE POSNANSKI
Columnist

Well, you should have seen the fuss. There were meetings. There were frantic phone calls. There were heart-to-heart discussions. It was a little bit like the White House during the Cuban missile crisis, only it lasted longer than 13 days. For three full weeks, Royals staff tossed and turned and argued and sweated and worried. Nobody slept.

And then, finally, they decided.

Yes, they would send Zack Greinke to pitch in Puerto Rico.

"The risk," Royals general manager Allard Baird says now -- with that Evel Knievel "I made the jump" relief in his voice -- "was extremely high."

III

This is the story of developing a pitching phenomenon, and pal, it ain't easy. You heard of Brien Taylor? Todd Van Poppel? Rick Ankiel? These were $100 million arms, worth more collectively than the Hope Diamond. One threw out his arm in a bar fight, one got banged around harder than Randall "Tex" Cobb, and one couldn't hit Paris if he pitched off the Eiffel Tower.

You think security guards who watch the Mona Lisa feel pressure? How about being told to develop a 19-year-old kid with four above-average pitches and the pitching mind of Greg Maddux? What could go wrong? You don't even want to know all the things that could go wrong: injuries, accidents, breakdowns, loneliness, overconfidence, loss of confidence, control problems, weight problems, woman problems, stage fright, bar fights, late nights and about 10 million other things.

Zack Greinke is that 19-year-old kid. How good is he? You probably don't need to say much more than he's 7-0 with a mind-boggling 1.02 ERA in Class A Wilmington, Del. He averages, and this statistic will blow you away, one strikeout per inning and one walk per outing. There are some in the Royals organization who whisper (not too loud, the GM would have a fit) that Greinke is good enough to pitch in Kansas City right now.

"What I tell people is Zack is like one of those 16-year-old geniuses who is in his first year of medical school," Royals assistant general manager Muzzy Jackson says. "From a competency standpoint, he is ready right now. But the social part of it, that's what we have to work on. He's still only 19."

That's why the Royals sent Greinke to Puerto Rico. They wanted to challenge him emotionally. They wanted to expose him to a new culture. They wanted to put him in unique situations, like the time he pitched at 1:30 in the morning. They wanted him to be around older players and raucous crowds and umpires with strike zones that move around more than Larry Brown.

The Royals also knew that there has never been a kid right out of high school sent to pitch in Puerto Rico.

"It turned out great for him," Baird says, that same relief evident in his voice. Baird doesn't even want to think about what might have happened in Puerto Rico. What happened was: Greinke pitched great, he gained priceless experience, he learned lessons from pitching mastermind Guy Hansen, and he's now the best pitching prospect the Royals have had in two decades.

"We went around the room," Baird says, "and I said, `If there is one guy in this room who is against sending Zack to Puerto Rico, we won't do it.' Everybody was for it. It was the right thing to do."

Baird smiles.

"Still," he says, "that doesn't mean we weren't scared to death."

III

A story about Zack: He was throwing on the side during spring training, and everybody was watching. Everybody watches the phenom. He throws easy, like a dad tossing to his child, but the ball pops the glove. Greinke puts it wherever he wants it. "He's a freak," Wilmington pitching coach Bill Slack tells Baird.

"OK," Baird yelled as he walked up. Everybody looked up. Baird wanted to bust the kid's chops a little bit. You can't let a 19-year-old -- even one with four pitches -- get too full of himself.

"So," Baird said mockingly, "you must be the kid trying out for the team."

Greinke looked over, stepped off the mound and smiled a little bit.

"Yep," Greinke said with a straight face. "And you're going to be impressed."

III

You raise different pitchers in different ways. Take another Royals prospect, Colt Griffin. Here's a 20-year-old with one of the hottest fastballs in the game. He was the only high school pitcher ever to be clocked at 100 mph, and even though the Royals have him now throwing in the 94 mph range, the ball still hops and swoops like it has its own heartbeat. Griffin has given up one home run in his career.

But he's wild. Really wild. This is a guy who has thrown 43 wild pitches and hit 21 batters in only 34 minor-league games.

So, the Royals work with him. And they work with him. And they work with him. They try to get him to repeat his delivery, the key to a pitcher's control. They try to get inside his head -- explain to him what he should be thinking out there. They try to build up his confidence by telling him that, with his stuff, he's going to get people out if he just throws the ball over the plate. Home plate. That white thing with the five sides.

This is fairly typical. You usually spend time teaching young pitchers how to pitch, how to throw strikes, how to develop their breaking pitches, all that stuff.

The thing with Zack Greinke is, he already gets all that. He throws four pitches, all of them for strikes. He moves his fastball up and down, in and out. He repeats his delivery perfectly, like Ben Hogan swinging a golf club. He watches video of the great pitchers. He badgers his pitching coach for advice. He keeps a book of hitters in the Carolina League. He charts all his pitches.

And he's just wise about pitching. Once, he struck out a hitter with a slider way outside the strike zone. Teammates patted him on the back. "No," he muttered. "That won't work on the next level." Who thinks like that at 19? Or even at 25? While others players with his talent are dying to get to the big leagues, right now, this minute, like a kid on a long car trip, Greinke says he wouldn't mind staying in A-Ball for a while.

"I'm in no hurry," he says. "I'll move up whenever they want."

Who is this guy?

"He loves baseball," Muzzy Jackson says. "He loves pitching. He studies it, day and night. You just don't see that in kids his age. I mean he has good stuff, four above-average pitches. But it's his mind that separates him. He knows exactly what he wants to do, and it's not even fair."

Here's a Zack story: Jackson went to see Greinke this week, and he saw a typical Greinke performance (eight innings, two hits, one run, eight strikeouts, one walk). Afterward, Jackson took Greinke aside and asked a bunch of questions about Greinke's mind-set, if he felt challenged, etc.

When the conversation was over, Greinke had a question.

"Who are we going to take in the amateur draft?" he asked. Jackson smiled and offered a couple of names.

"Well," Greinke said, "I have some other suggestions."

And he gave the names of five or six players the Royals should consider.

III

Another story about Zack: Word was circulating that Greinke was unhappy with his velocity. He was throwing 91 mph or so -- barely above the major-league average. Young pitchers usually want to light up the radar gun. What they don't understand is that, when they try to throw harder, bad things usually happen. Jason Gilfillan, the Royals reliever, was utterly dominant in Class AAA throwing in the high 80s and occasionally around 90. Well, he came up to the big leagues, and his first pitch was 93 mph.

"Jason," Baird says, "had never thrown 93 mph in his entire life."

Unfortunately, when you overthrow, the ball moves straighter than the Rockettes dance line. And young Jason got lit up like the Vegas strip.

Anyway, Baird quickly called Greinke and started to give him the speech he gives every young pitcher: "I understand you're worried about your velocity...."

Greinke interrupted, "No sir, Mr. Baird. I'm not worried. I'm worried that you might be worried."

And then Greinke said this: "I can throw 94 and have a 2.50 ERA. Or I can throw 91 and have a 1.20 ERA. That's up to you."

III

Looking at a few of these quotes in print, it might seem that Greinke is cocky. But he's not. He's actually quite modest. See cockiness usually means a person is compensating for something. "When you see a cocky pitcher," Royals first baseman Mike Sweeney says, "what you usually find is a scared little boy inside."

No, he's not cocky. He's just sure. Utterly and completely sure. "Hey, if I could throw four above-average pitches for strikes, I'd be confident too," Muzzy Jackson says.

It's Greinke's unshakeable confidence that, more than anything else, has the Royals believing he could be the one. This really is like a family board game, this job of raising young pitchers. There are so many traps -- Injury Island, Walk Alley, Missing Curveball Corner -- and it's not easy to get through.

"There are a lot of throwers in the minor leagues," Jackson says, "and very few pitchers. That's what we try to teach, but it's not easy. That's another reason why Zack is so special. He's like an artist. He studies his craft. He's so good at such a young age, that it scares you."

In fact, there's only one thing the Royals don't know about Greinke. But it's a big one. They don't know how he will respond to failure. How will he react when, inevitably, his best pitch gets hit 430 feet, when he can't get out of a bad inning, when he finds himself all alone facing Manny Ramirez or Jason Giambi with the bases loaded and nobody out.

The Royals think he will react well. He's so mature. But they don't know. Right now, he's not being challenged much in Wilmington so soon, maybe even this week, he will move to Class AA Wichita. Maybe he will get challenged there. And, frankly, maybe not.

Every young pitcher does provide challenges.

"Greinke will face failure before he pitches in Kansas City, I promise you that," Baird says. "I'll take pitches away from him if I have to. I'll say `Go ahead and see what you can do without your slider and change-up.' "

Muzzy Jackson laughs about that.

"I don't know," Jackson says. "The way this kid pitches, he could probably win throwing nothing but fastballs."
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Old 05-25-2003, 08:28 PM   #2
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Great article, I hope this kid is the real deal!
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