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The Strike Zone

Nationals trade for Span has several ripple effects

Denard Span's addition solves Washington's quest for a centerfielder. (AP)

The Nationals finally pried centerfielder Denard Span away from the Twins on Thursday in exchange for pitching prospect Alex Meyer. The trade appears to be a solid win-win for both clubs and has plentiful implications on the market writ large.

*The Nationals have their true centerfielder. Washington general manager Mike Rizzo often speaks about the need for talent in the up-the-middle positions and, in particular, has longed for a natural centerfielder for a couple years now. Span, at last, is that guy. And the 28-year-old should be for three seasons: he’s owed only $11.25 million in 2013 and ‘14, with a $9 million option for 2015 (or a $500,000 buyout that’s not likely to be exercised).

Span is a true leadoff hitter thanks to a .357 career on-base percentage. That would be a notable improvement on Washington’s .325 mark in that lineup slot last year, which only ranked 17th in the majors; Jayson Werth, more commonly a middle-of-the-order hitter had a .388 OBP when batting first while all others had a .307. But the Nationals slugged 194 home runs last year, which ranked second in the National League, so they have enough thunder in the lineup (even without Adam LaRoche, as explained later) to compensate for the fact that Span has hit only nine in his last 351 games over the past three seasons.

Span is also very good defensively. According to the Fielding Bible, he scored a +55 Plus/Minus over the past two seasons while Washington’s centerfielders collectively were only +10 during that stretch. Importantly, Washington rated -21 in the corner outfield positions last year, but those spots should be solidified in 2013 if rightfielder Jayson Werth avoids breaking his wrist and Bryce Harper is able to establish himself in leftfield. Speaking of that . . .

*Bryce Harper is now a corner outfielder. Out of necessity, Harper made 86 starts in center last year, compared to 41 in right and six in left, but the converted catcher — though a fine runner with top-shelf hustle — never projected to be a long-term solution in centerfield. With Span on board, Harper is free to get used to one outfield position and, if he so chooses, add a few pounds of muscle to improve his power, even at the expense of a half-step of speed now that he won’t be expected to cover as much ground defensively.

*Adam LaRoche is less likely to return to D.C. Either LaRoche or Michael Morse won’t return, one would think, and the smart money is that Morse will be back given that he’s under contract for 2013 already and LaRoche is not. LaRoche is the better player, but at 33 he’s two years older and sure to command a hefty salary in the free agent market, while Morse is signed for a reasonable $6.5 million.

Before the trade for Span, Morse projected to log some time in leftfield, but the outfield is now full. Washington will hope Morse plays more like his 2011 self (31 homers, .910 OPS) than his 2012 version (18 homers, .791 OPS), especially since LaRoche hit 33 homers last year. Trading for Span and his affordable contract ought to leave room in the budget for LaRoche — rather than if the Nats signed B.J. Upton or Michael Bourn, for instance — with Morse becoming a trade chip. Still, the more likely scenario is that Morse is Washington’s Opening Day first baseman.

*The suitors for Michael Bourn are dwindling. Three NL East contenders needed centerfielders, and two have filled that hole in as many days, with the Braves signing B.J. Upton and the Nationals acquiring Span. That leaves the Phillies as the favorites to sign Bourn, with the Giants and Reds as the other clubs with stated needs for a centerfielder. According to ESPN.com’s Jerry Crasnick, however, the Reds aren’t interested in Bourn. Then again, some other club with a less obvious need could step forward and make a push for Bourn — the game’s best defensive centerfielder — and simply move whomever its incumbent is to a corner outfield spot.

*The Twins continue rebuilding. Meyer was a first-round pick out of the University of Kentucky in 2011 and posted an impressive line for his first season of pro ball this past season: a 2.86 ERA with 9.7 K/9 and 3.1 K/BB ratios over 129 innings split between Class A and High A ball. The 6-foot-9 righthander throws in the upper 90s with a great slider and projects as a top of the rotation starter. With Ben Revere ready to patrol centerfield, it made sense for Minnesota to part with Span as part of its rebuilding.

*The Wheeler-Beltran trade — but better. Span for Meyer is a one-for-one trade of outfielder-for-pitching prospect like the Mets swapping Carlos Beltran for Giants righthander Zack Wheeler at the 2011 deadline. This move, though, is more advantageous for the Nationals than that deal was for the Giants, as Washington will have Span likely for up to three years rather than up to three months.

Span, like Beltran at this point of his career, is not a superstar but an above-average everyday major leaguer, who in the past would have netted two or three medium prospect rather than one high-end player. This idea of quality over quantity is risky when teams are only getting one player in return, but the greater potential makes it worth it.

 – By Joe Lemire
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