The season they had anticipated with such fervor already in shambles, the Kansas City Royals are taking a huge risk by giving their fans what they want in 20-year-old pitcher Zack Greinke.

Maybe the young right-hander really is ready for the majors. But it's hard to see how six starts for Class AAA Omaha should be enough to convince the Royals to abandon their plan of allowing the prized prospect to spend a second full season in the minors.

The sudden promotion of Greinke smacks of small-market desperation.

Kansas City's starting pitchers went into the weekend 4-18 with a 5.98 ERA. Brian Anderson, Darrell May and Jeremy Affeldt, expected to carry the load, were a combined 2-14 with a 6.01 ERA.

Instead of looking forward to a great summer at the turnstiles, the Royals have begun the countdown to a midseason purge that will include Carlos Beltran, the best player the organization has produced since George Brett.

Enter Greinke.

The fresh-faced kid from outside of Orlando was scheduled to make his big-league debut Saturday at Oakland after only 15 starts above Class A. He has dominated wherever he has been, going 16-5 with a 2.15 ERA over 180 innings since being selected as the sixth pick overall in the 2002 draft.

With the Royals having already lost Runelvys Hernandez, Miguel Asencio and Kyle Snyder with major elbow injuries, Greinke represents their future.

"We need to get this one right," General Manager Allard Baird said.

Manager Tony Pena was impressed with what he saw of Greinke in spring training.

"I know Greinke is ready to pitch in the big leagues," Pena said. "The way he pitched in spring training, he showed everybody that he was very, very close. This kid is only 20 years old, but he has the ability to pitch in the big leagues."

Maybe so, but why rush him to the big leagues only to bail water on a sinking ship?

Hitting Bottom in Atlanta

Randy Johnson's perfect game Tuesday night against the Braves followed a Sunday loss to Milwaukee in which Atlanta was victimized by 18 Ben Sheets strikeouts. After leading the National League with a franchise-record 5.6 runs per game last season, the Braves are 10th in the league at 4.6 runs per game.

"You can say, without a shadow of a doubt, we've reached a new all-time low," left fielder Chipper Jones said.

The Braves are currently without both their middle infielders. They're going to miss second baseman Marcus Giles, who is hitting .339 but could be out two months after breaking his collarbone in a collision with Andruw Jones.

"It's rough losing Marcus," Manager Bobby Cox said. "He is one of the premier players in the National League."

Chilly in Seattle

Two months before his induction into the Hall of Fame, Paul Molitor is under fire in his role as Seattle's new hitting coach.

The Mariners have slipped from seventh in the AL at 4.9 runs per game in 2003 to 13th at 4.1 this season. They're last in the league in homers and ahead of only Tampa Bay in on-base percentage.

"It's been a struggle," Molitor said. "At times I see signs of things starting to flow. But after 40 games it hasn't been what I hoped, and I certainly feel somewhat accountable for not being better, more competitive, offensively."

At one point GM Bill Bavasi referred to the attack as "inept."

Molitor offered a tepid rebuttal: "It's more a description of the current state than an analysis of its potential. And it has been inept at times. We haven't, situationally, gotten guys in from third; we couldn't even bunt for a while, to move runners along. There's been an ineptitude that's caused us to lose games when we've had a well-pitched game we should have won."

Ode to the Pitch Count

Keep an eye on Giants starter Jason Schmidt's results the next few times out. Manager Felipe Alou was reckless in allowing him to throw 144 pitches in that 1-0 victory at Wrigley Field on Tuesday. This is a guy who spent the winter rehabilitating from a partially torn ligament in his elbow.

Texas Manager Buck Showalter allowed R.A. Dickey to throw 132 pitches in 82/3 innings to defeat Boston on May 2. He's 0-2 with an 8.79 ERA in three starts since, allowing 34 base runners in 141/3 innings in those games.

Showalter has denied the workload has been a problem. Dickey acknowledged falling off in his first start after that game but has been all right since then.

"It's tough to lose any time," said Dickey, who was 4-1 with a 3.48 ERA in his first five starts. "But to lose like this, it's hard to explain."

And was there enough ice at Tropicana Field for Devil Rays starter Victor Zambrano's shoulder Thursday night?

Manager Lou Piniella allowed the one-man thrill ride to throw 132 pitches in 42/3 innings. In his last two outings he's thrown 205 pitches over six innings, with 16 walks. Yikes. . . .

Meantime, the Devil Rays' abysmal play has gotten the Piniella-to-New York rumors cranked up again. That's not good news for Art Howe, who would first have to lose his job for Piniella to be named Mets manager.

The Mets are showing improvement in Howe's second season, but Piniella is big box office in New York. He said he would never manage anywhere else after taking over the Devil Rays but has fueled speculation by talking about the angst he feels watching his career winning percentage plummet.

Entering the weekend Tampa Bay had won only four of its last 23 games. Piniella declined to discuss the rumors.

"All I know is I'm tired of losing," he said. "That's what I'm tired of. Nothing more, nothing less. I'm just tired of losing."

Top prospect Zack Greinke, 20, was scheduled to make major league debut for struggling Kansas City Saturday. Seattle batting coach Paul Molitor, shown with ex-Twins teammate Jack Morris, recently admitted his team's offense "has been inept at times."