When you're running your franchise on a shoestring budget, it's absolutely essential that you draft well. In 2001, the Royals drafted about as poorly as a team can draft. With their first pick (ninth overall), the Royals selected an 18-year-old pitcher named Colt Griffin, who that spring had become the first documented high schooler to hit 100 on the radar gun. The Royals paid him $2.4 million to sign a contract. They used their second pick on Roscoe Crosby, and paid him first-round money ($1.75 million) because if they offered second-round money he was going to instead play football at Clemson.
That draft was an utter disaster. Crosby's not playing baseball these days, and Griffin still can't find the strike zone with the help of runway lights. The Royals did draft 48 other players in 2001; three years later, not even one of them is considered a legitimate prospect. Early in that draft, the Royals went high school heavy, spending eight of their first nine picks on teenagers. That can work, if you pick the right guys. Usually it doesn't.
Royals general manager Allard Baird does eventually learn from his mistakes. So in 2002 Baird was determined to spend his first draft pick, the sixth overall, on a polished college starter. Only problem was, when it was the Royals' turn to pick, Bryan Bullington -- widely considered the best college pitcher in the draft -- was long gone (the Pirates grabbed him with the No. 1 pick). Polished collegians Jeff Francis, Bobby Brownlie, Jeremy Guthrie, and Joe Blanton were still on the board ... but Baird's scouts told him the best college pitcher available was ... a high school pitcher named Zack Greinke. This kid, they told him, was closer to the majors than any of those other guys.
The scouts were right. While all of the aforementioned college pitchers are today considered real prospects, all of them are 1) three years older than Greinke, and 2) still in the minor leagues. Meanwhile, Greinke zipped through the minors, and Wednesday night he made his third start for the Royals.
It's not often that you'll see a young pitcher vary the speed of his pitches to any degree. I remember watching a young Royals pitcher a couple of years ago, and he threw two speeds: fastball 89-90, curveball 79-80. And you can't get away with that for long in the major leagues unless your two speeds are 96 and 85 or something.
Greinke doesn't throw 96. But he can throw 94 when he wants to (which isn't often), and just about any other number all the way down to the low 60s. Last night against the Tigers, Greinke struck out Carlos Guillen on a 93-mph fastball, and Dmitri Young on a 65 mph curveball. He throws five distinct pitches: fastball, slider, curveball, change-up, and slow -- really slow -- curveball.
I charted the velocity for all of Greinke's pitches (except for the dozen or so that weren't displayed on my TV screen. His fastest pitch was 93 (he threw two of those), his slowest was 63 (that really slow curveball). That's impressive in itself. But here's the really interesting thing ... From 63 through 93, there are 31 "slots" for different speeds; Greinke hit 26 of them.
Warren Spahn used to say, "Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing." Greinke is 20 years old, and he's already better at upsetting timing than probably 95 percent of the pitchers in the major leagues, which is to say that he's already better at upsetting timing than 95 percent of the best pitchers in the world. Greinke is a prodigy, and if he doesn't get hurt he's going to become one of the best pitchers in the game.
He's not there yet, though. Greinke, who bears a striking resemblance to a young Mark Langston, isn't yet physically mature. As he gains weight, he'll be able to throw 93 more than twice per game. And as he gains experience, he'll have an even better idea of when to throw 93. Greinke's far from the best 20-year-old pitcher we've seen -- that honor probably goes to Dwight Gooden -- but I don't know that we've ever seen a 20-year-old pitcher quite like Greinke. He's not going to win a lot of games, because his team stinks and he's not strong enough to pitch more than six or seven innings. But this kid's the real thing, the best young Royals pitcher since Kevin Appier ... and maybe a lot better than that.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.