LOS ANGELES — Two days before he would make a triumphant return from the disabled list with 5 1/3 innings of one-run baseball in a victory over the Washington Nationals, Zack Greinke stood on the field at Dodger Stadium laughing and smiling in conversation with Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner.
It was something of a unique sight: a player from one team having a friendly conversation with the owner of another. Especially when that player has never played for that owner.
But in the Nationals‘ brief history, Greinke represents one of their greatest “What if?” questions. What if the right-hander hadn’t nixed the rumored trade that would have brought him to Washington instead of Milwaukee before the 2011 season — and possibly cost the Nationals multiple members of their core?
“I talked to [Lerner and the Nationals‘ front office staff] for a couple hours, probably,” the right-hander said Tuesday afternoon, before he’d help the Dodgers take the three-game series from the Nationals.
“[In total] I probably talked to him more than any owner I’ve played for. … It was a pretty long meeting [we had in 2010], so I have some relationship with him.”
That mutual affection led him to the Nationals‘ side of the field at Dodgers Stadium on Monday. Greinke, who signed a six-year, $147 million deal with Los Angeles this offseason, wanted to tell Lerner that everything the Nationals had sold him on was right.
“I’m just so impressed with how good they’ve become,” Greinke said. “I was in a different league [back then] and never saw them play, so I didn’t really have a good feel for what they had. They were telling me how good their young guys were and I didn’t really want to take 100 percent of their word for it and just complete trust what people are saying. But, I mean, they were right about what they were saying.
“That’s kind of what I say to him every time [I see him]: ‘Hey, you guys were right. I didn’t realize.’”
At the beginning of this past offseason, the Nationals made it clear that they were going to cast a wide net in their search for their fifth starting pitcher. They didn’t rule out Greinke, who was traded midseason to the Los Angeles Angels, as one of their possible targets, but it was always somewhat unlikely they would drop close to $150 million on any free agent regardless of who it was.
Instead they targeted Greinke’s Angels teammate, Dan Haren, who briefly joined in on the conversation between his former teammate and his current owner Monday. Haren signed a one-year, $13 million deal — a completely different kind of transaction than Greinke’s — and has pitched well after a rocky start to the season.
Greinke politely declined to comment when asked if he went into the free agency process hoping the Nationals might be one of the top contenders for his services, saying succinctly: “I signed with the Dodgers.”
But so far, the nontrade appears to have worked out for both sides on certain levels.
Greinke got a chance to pitch in the postseason in 2011 with the Milwaukee Brewers, and cashed in on the richest deal in major league history for a right-hander when he signed with the Dodgers, who are also expected to contend. The Nationals, with several of the players they may have shipped to Milwaukee becoming key components for them, won 98 games and the NL East title in 2012. And they are expected to be among the league’s elite for years to come.
Through it all, the articulate right-hander has paid keen attention to the progress, and, it appears, enjoyed seeing the plans they laid out for him come to fruition.
“I think it even happened faster than they expected,” Greinke said. “They expected to be good, obviously, but I don’t know if they could’ve imagined everything clicking. You hope for it, but I’m sure it surprised them a little bit.
“That trade for [left-hander Gio Gonzalez], he really helped put the team together. That changed a lot of stuff. … They were right. That’s kind of what I was saying.”
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