KANSAS CITY -- If the Winter Meetings are getting closer, can Zack Greinke trade speculation be far behind?
Certainly not, and the Royals' prized right-hander likely will spark many rumors, most of them imagined and a few legitimate, as baseball's annual clambake begins on Monday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
The Royals aren't particularly anxious to unload Greinke -- after all, he's their only reliable starting pitcher -- but just the fact that they'll listen to offers is enough to fuel the Hot Stove. Greinke slipped from his gaudy 2009 Cy Young Award credentials (16-8, 2.16 ERA) to 10-14 with a 4.17 ERA in 2010. But he was formidable in most outings and ran up 220 innings in 33 starts, including eight innings 10 times and three complete games.
However, Greinke is two years away from free agency and his salary in 2011 and '12 will be $13.5 million each year. So if the Royals cannot sign him beyond that, they might want to deal him while he has great appeal.
As Royals general manager Dayton Moore put it earlier this month, his club is in a similar situation as Minnesota was with Johan Santana and Cleveland was with Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia in picking a time to deal those highly sought pitchers. "So we will have to maximize his value certainly at some point in time," Moore said.
There are other factors in the backdrop of the Greinke situation. Last summer, he seemed dubious about the Royals' continual rebuilding efforts in rather mild comments that gained surprising weight around town. Also, as Greinke acknowledged in an interview with MLB.com, he had some minor problems with the social anxiety disorder that interrupted his career earlier and planned to increase the medication that controls it.
Almost certainly, a deal for Greinke would have to net the Royals a big package that would include players who would mesh with the ballyhooed up-and-coming crop that is about to burst out of the Minors. There is also the important consideration that Greinke has a list of 15 clubs to which he won't be traded, leaving just 14 on his eligible list.
Then there's the inevitable backlash that would almost certainly accompany the trading of the popular Greinke and the loss of his ability to put fans in the seats. In his 17 starts at Kauffman Stadium last season, the Royals averaged 23,234 per game, in contrast to the overall mark of 20,192 -- or 19,371 in home games that he didn't pitch.
Don't get too excited about reports that a club is "interested" in Greinke. Who wouldn't be?
Recent speculation centered on Texas as a possible landing place for Greinke, but the Rangers, at the moment, are concentrating their efforts on bringing back free-agent left-hander Cliff Lee. And the Rangers consider their top prospects, such as pitcher Martin Perez, off limits.
The Royals got this fall's trading season started by dealing their longest-tenured player, outfielder David DeJesus, to the Oakland Athletics because he was just a year away from free agency. In the deal, the Royals filled a rotation need by obtaining right-hander Vin Mazzaro.
Although that deal freed up about $5.5 million from the Royals' payroll, Moore has indicated that he won't be spending big amounts for short-term fills in the free-agent market. The Royals' only free agent was left-hander Bruce Chen, the surprise top winner on the staff, and he could be back, but probably not with the two-year deal that he wants.
Last year's payroll of $74 million is likely to come down even without dealing Greinke. The other big-ticket player is pitcher Gil Meche, who plans to earn his $12 million in a bullpen role because his right shoulder no longer holds up to starting stress.
High on the Royals' wishlist is a right-handed power hitter to fill a corner-outfield spot where Alex Gordon and Mitch Maier currently figure to play. Both are left-handed hitters with modest power in a lineup dominated by lefties.
A veteran catcher would be a plus because the incumbent vet, Jason Kendall, isn't expected to be back from shoulder surgery before the first month or two of the season. The kids lined up behind Kendall are Brayan Pena and Lucas May, but both have defensive questions.
A durable starting pitcher -- preferably left-handed -- is being sought along with the usual hunt for relievers who can help carry the game to closer Joakim Soria.
Who, beyond Greinke, could the Royals offer in trades? The upgrading of the Minor League system has gone so well that they're strong enough to consider dealing off a top prospect or two. Especially deep is the reservoir of left-handed pitchers, both starters and relievers. The long list of lefties includes Danny Duffy, Mike Montgomery, Everett Teaford, Edgar Osuna, John Lamb, Chris Dwyer, Blaine Hardy and Tim Collins.
But the Royals will not be sacrificing prime property such as third baseman Mike Moustakas, first baseman Eric Hosmer or catcher Wil Myers.
Nor will first baseman Billy Butler, their lone right-handed power hitter, or Soria be going anywhere.
Players with largely unproven potential who might attract suitors include left fielder Gordon, a former first-round Draft choice who's overdue, and first baseman Kila Ka'aihue, a home run blaster in the Minors.
Others who could be trading pieces are infielder Mike Aviles, who rediscovered his batting stroke late last season, starting pitcher Kyle Davies, who always seems on the brink of finding his way, and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, vastly improved at the plate and in the field in 2010.
So throw the fuel, including a Greinke twig or two, into the Hot Stove and let's get the fire started.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.