This weekend, the Brewers acquired star Royals pitcher Zack Greinke in return for young shortstop Alcides Escobar and three prospects. Not only was it a glamorous trade for the Brewers, it was a good one - not only in terms of what they received and what they gave up, but also in terms of the big picture.
The Brewers won 77 games last year and faced a perilous future. They had talent, with a strong young offensive core led by Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun and Corey Hart, and a young ace in Yovani Gallardo. But Fielder was set to become a free agent after the 2011 season, and Braun, Hart and Gallardo were about to get expensive. On top of that, the Brewers had a farm system that wasn't awful but wasn't likely to churn out impact players. They weren't a great team in the present, and they weren't likely to become one in the future.
To acquire Greinke and another good young veteran pitcher, Shaun Marcum, the Brewers gave up many of the best players in their farm system, including starting pitching prospect Jake Odorizzi (in the Greinke deal) and infielder Brett Lawrie (in the Marcum deal). Their long-term future looked cloudy before, but now it looks even worse.
The present, though, looks very bright. With the additions of Greinke and Marcum, the Brewers can be a strong contender in a relatively weak NL Central division, at least until Fielder leaves after the 2011 season and perhaps also in 2012. (The Cincinnati Reds are the only NL Central team that looks to be in good shape for the next couple years.) And if things don't work out, the Brewers can always trade stars at the deadline and start worrying about rebuilding then.
These moves reflect a crucial idea in baseball: the middle is a bad place to be. It's better to be terrible for a year and great for a year than to be a .500 team for two years. There are three reasons for this. First, the goal is to pursue a championship, not to finish .500 - most fans would argue that pursuing a championship is a worthwhile goal in itself, and they're right about that. Second, the difference in value between the first-round draft pick you get for being terrible and the one you get for being mediocre is much higher than the difference in value between the first-round pick you get for being mediocre and the one you get for being great. (That is, the value of a No. 1 overall pick is tremendous, because it can potentially get you a Ken Griffey Jr. or and Alex Rodriguez, but there isn't a huge difference in value between the No. 15 and No. 30 overall picks.)
Third, a playoff appearance is very valuable, not only in pure baseball terms, but financially as well, since teams reap the benefits of playoff gate receipts and fan goodwill. In the 2006 book Baseball Between The Numbers, Nate Silver showed that there was very little difference, financially, between being a 70-win team and being a 75-win team. But there is a tremendous difference between being an 85-win team that misses the playoffs and a 90-win team that makes it.
The acquisitions of Greinke and Marcum have at least a decent chance of changing the Brewers from an average team to a playoff team, and that's potentially great for the Brewers both in pure baseball terms (because they could win a championship as a result) and financially (because they'll make a bunch of money if they make the playoffs). Going for a playoff appearance now and potentially winning only 65 games in 2013 is better than winning 81 games in both years.
So the Greinke and Marcum trades make sense for the Brewers in terms of their position as a mediocre team that could potentially become a playoff team with a couple of aggressive moves like this. Fans of the Pirates, a losing team in a market similar to Milwaukee's, might look jealously at these moves, but they shouldn't. The benefit of adding players like Greinke and Marcum would be much lower for the Pirates than it is for the Brewers, because those two pitchers alone wouldn't make the Pirates a playoff-caliber team. Instead, they would simply get the Pirates to the middle - which might seem great after 18 straight years of losing but which, again, isn't the best place to be.
The Brewers positioned themselves to make the Greinke trade by first acquiring and developing young players like Fielder, Braun, Hart and Gallardo, and that's where the Pirates' focus needs to be. For a bottom-dwelling team, acquiring an established star, as the Nationals recently did by overpaying Jayson Werth, can be fun for a year or two. But it would be hard for the Pirates for such a move to make sense in terms of their long-term plans, which are far more important. The Pirates need to develop their equivalents of Fielder and Braun, and then they can start making blockbuster moves. The Brewers were able to pull this one off only because they already had a playoff-caliber core in place. The Pirates might have one of their own in a few years. It'll be painful in the meantime, but the best thing Pirates fans can do is have patience.