In the winter and early spring before the 2011 season, Zack Greinke managed to both formally reject and theoretically embrace the idea of playing for the Nationals. In December 2010, the Nationals agreed to a trade with the Kansas City Royals that would send them the former Cy Young winner, only for Greinke to turn down a $100 million contract extension and unravel the deal.
Three months later, in March, Greinke reflected on the process with the Nationals. They were at that point coming off a 93-loss season, and he wanted to play for a team with more favorable odds of contention. But when he looked into the future, he could envision making another choice about playing in Washington and arriving at a different decision.
“Maybe it works out better that the deal [with Washington] didn’t go through,” Greinke told colleague Dave Sheinin back then. “In two years I might be a free agent, and then they get to keep the players [who would have been] in the trade. And some of those guys could end up being key players for them.”
Which brings us to today. Greinke is a free agent, the best available starting pitcher after he punched up a 3.48 ERA over 212 1/3 innings for the Brewers and Angels. The Nationals need a starting pitcher, trying to improve on a 98-win season built on a young core that figures to keep them in contention for the foreseeable future. Greinke is again a commodity, but now the Nationals are a destination.
Adding Greinke to a rotation that already includes an unrestricted Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler would have to make the Nationals the World Series favorite. It would also cement those five as their rotation for at least three full seasons, at which point Detwiler would be eligible to become a free agent.
The match almost seems too good to be true, and maybe it is. Greinke, 29, could demand in the neighborhood of $120 million over six years. The Nationals appear to be flush, but they also have to keep future funds in mind. They already have two players, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman, on $100 million-plus contracts, and they will need to lock up Bryce Harper, Zimmermann, Strasburg, Ian Desmond and others as the years pass. Greinke may require a steeper commitment than the Nationals are willing to provide.
But there are also reasons to believe Greinke to the Nationals adds up, starting with their shared history leading up to 2011. In early December, Greinke met with Nationals ownership and General Manager Mike Rizzo at a secretive meeting near the winter meeting in Orlando. Even though Greinke ultimately put the kibosh on his trade to Washington, the meeting left him feeling good about Washington.
“It wouldn’t have gotten as far as it did [with the Nationals] if it wasn’t appealing,” Greinke said then. “The one thing I couldn’t get over was the fact that, here I was trying to get out of Kansas City because the team wasn’t good. Not saying [the Nationals] don’t have a chance, but I was trying to get to a team that was looking really good at the moment. And I believe [the Nationals] will be good eventually.”
Do Rizzo and the Nationals – who, again, have already offered Greinke a $100 million deal once in the past two years – still feel strongly about Greinke? Well, the Nationals like this free agent class of pitchers. They let Edwin Jackson walk for nothing, not even extending him a one-year, $13.3 million qualifying offer, because they did not want to risk Jackson taking up a spot in their rotation that one of the available free agents could take. And Greinke is clearly the superior starter of the group.
The Nationals need to fill only their fifth starter spot, but they will not limit the scope of their search. Last year, Rizzo openly coveted a durable veteran, but this winter his approach will be different.
“I’m much more open-minded with it this year,” Rizzo said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a veteran, it doesn’t have to necessarily need to be a fifth-starter type of guy. We just want to get the most quality type of pitcher that we can.”
The most quality pitcher out there is Greinke, and the Nationals have not been afraid to make stunning moves. The past two Nationals’ offseasons have both brought big, splashy surprises. They signed Werth prior to the 2011 season, and last winter they traded four prospects for Gio Gonzalez and then added Jackson to a full rotation.
The Nationals will face stiff competition if they enter the Greinke sweepstakes, and the price will be enormous. But the Nationals have tried before, and Greinke may be ready, two years later, to embrace the Nationals, this time not in word, but in deed.
Are the Nationals and Zack Greinke a fit two years later?