Nats have lots to offer free agents

Two years ago, Zack Greinke rejected a trade to the Washington Nationals because he thought the team wasn’t good enough.

On Thursday, coming off a 98-win season, the Nats traded for Minnesota center fielder Denard Span, all but screaming at Greinke, “How do you like us now?”

I’m not saying the Nats suddenly are the favorites for Greinke — that distinction belongs to the filthy-rich Los Angeles Dodgers. I’m not even sure the Nats will make a strong bid for Greinke, particularly if they re-sign free-agent first baseman Adam LaRoche to, say, a three-year, $33 million deal.

But this is all setting up quite nicely, isn’t it?

Quite differently than it did two years ago.

Greinke, then with Kansas City, got the Royals’ blessing to meet secretly with Nats officials, including owner Ted Lerner, at the winter meetings in Orlando. He was duly impressed by the Nationals’ desire to improve, as exemplified by their $126 million signing of Jayson Werth.

However, he was concerned that the Nats would be weakened if they gave up too much for him in their proposed deal with the Royals — right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, closer Drew Storen and second baseman Danny Espinosa were among the names discussed.

So, Greinke invoked his no-trade clause, eventually getting sent to the Milwaukee Brewers. The players who stayed with the Nationals developed into core members of the club. And now, the Nats are in a much stronger position to pursue Greinke, the best pitcher on the free-agent market.

Span, earning $4.75 million next season and under club control for three more years, is highly affordable. The Nats, if they re-sign LaRoche, can trade left fielder Michael Morse rather than move him to first and save $6.75 million. And they declined to make free-agent right-hander Edwin Jackson a $13.1 million qualifying offer, preferring to retain flexibility for another pitcher.

I will guarantee you that Greinke is aware of every move and possibility. He is a student of the game, not to mention an independent thinker. Think he wouldn’t want to join a rotation that already includes Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez? Or pitch in the National League, backed by the league’s best defense?

The Nats led the National League last season in defensive efficiency, the rate at which balls in play are converted into outs. Their trade for Span, a highly rated center fielder, will make the defense even better, especially if the Nats keep LaRoche — and make no mistake, they want to keep LaRoche.

In fact, LaRoche can expect a full-court press when he attends manager Davey Johnson’s celebrity golf tournament this weekend to benefit Lighthouse Central Florida.

“I’ve been texting LaRoche all day, saying, ‘Bring your pen down here, sign your contract,’ ” Johnson said after the Nats announced the acquisition of Span for right-hander Alex Meyer, the team’s top pitching prospect.

Meyer, the 23rd overall pick in the 2011 draft out of the University of Kentucky, went a combined 10-6 with a 2.86 ERA at two different levels of Class A last season. He’s 6-foot-9, throws in the mid-90s and has deception and “whippy arm action” reminiscent of Jeff Weaver’s, according to one scout.

To which Johnson says, “Nice to know you, kid!”

When Nats general manager Mike Rizzo informed Johnson of the possible deal on Tuesday, Johnson said he got immediately excited, telling his GM, “If you can pull that off, do it.”

“Meyer has a helluva future, but we’re dealing with the here and now,” Johnson said. “I’m trying to win a World Series next year. I ain’t worried when Meyer gets here.”

Nor is he worried about Brian Goodwin, Eury Perez and Michael Taylor, the Nationals’ three top center field prospects. Johnson said the team always had a weakness in the outfield. Now, suddenly, that area is a strength.

The Nats, thanks to the work of Rizzo, are becoming an embarrassment of riches. Johnson said that Bryce Harper, 20, will hit cleanup if LaRoche departs; otherwise, Johnson will ponder multiple scenarios for his lineup, which will be left-right balanced regardless.

The bullpen will return mostly intact, save for the likely departure of free-agent lefty Sean Burnett. Catcher Wilson Ramos is expected back from two knee surgeries, joining Kurt Suzuki. Another top prospect, infielder Anthony Rendon, soon will be ready, creating other trade possibilities.

I can envision the Nationals speaking with Greinke again at this year’s winter meetings, two years after he rejected not only their trade, but also their offer of a $100 million extension.

I can see Lerner and Rizzo outlining both the present and future, demonstrating to Greinke the remarkable progress they’ve made in so little time.

How do you like ’em now, Zack?

How could you say no to ’em again?