After searching for a leadoff hitting center fielder since the team arrived in Washington 8 years ago, Thursday general manager Mike Rizzo and the Nationals traded right-handed pitching prospect Alex Meyer to the Minnesota Twins in exchange for outfielder Denard Span. Just one day after watching Atlanta sign free agent BJ Upton, and with fellow division rival Philadelphia amongst other teams seeking a center fielder, wisely the Nationals struck quickly to resolve their weakness in the outfield. The Nationals have been rumored to be interested in Span for a few seasons and yesterday, Mike Rizzo finally got his guy, although it came at the price of a top pitching prospect.
Alex Meyer, a Nationals 2011 1st round pick 23rd overall from the University of Kentucky, went 10-6 with a 2.86 ERA with 139 strikeouts against 45 walks in 25 starts and 129 innings pitched at Low-A Hagerstown and High-A Potomac in 2012. Possessing a powerful mid-90s fastball, a true swing-and-miss slider, and a fringy changeup, along with a massive 6’9” 230lb frame, Meyer has the potential to become a true #1 or #2 quality starting pitcher or a devastating late-inning reliever. This is where the divide occurs, as Meyer’s fans see him as a future starting pitcher with two plus pitches and an average changeup, and his detractors see him as a two-pitch reliever without a third pitch or the command of the strike zone to be a starting pitcher. Regardless, Meyer is a significant loss to an already diluted Nationals farm system.
Denard Span, 29-years-old next February, batted .283/.342/.395 with 4 home runs and 17 stolen bases in 128 games played last season, and for his 5-year major league career, he is a .284/.357/.389 hitter with 23 home runs and 90 stolen bases. In addition the defensive metrics rate Span as a well above-average defensive player in center field, allowing the Nationals to move Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth to the corner outfield positions, and creating one of the best collective defensive outfields in baseball. Span’s left-handed bat, strong prowess for getting on-base as a leadoff hitter, and outstanding defense in center field makes him an ideal fit for the Nationals offense. Span is signed through 2014, making $4.75 million next season, $6.5 million the following year, and the Nationals hold a cheap club option for 2015 for $9 million dollars with a $500,000 buyout.
This acquisition solidifies the Nationals outfield this offseason, as the team now has their leadoff hitter and has resolved their outfield with Span in center field and Harper and Werth in the corners with Roger Bernadina, Steve Lombardozzi, and Tyler Moore capably backing them up. As of now, the Nationals have approximately $52 million committed to the payroll on offense, with only first base needing a resolution, leaving the front office with plenty of available payroll and two options: shift Michael Morse, who has 1-year and $7 million left on his contract, from left field to first base or re-sign Adam LaRoche or sign another free agent first baseman and trade Morse for a pitcher or prospects to replenish the farm system. Procuring Span quickly improves an already strong roster, while still leaving Mike Rizzo in the enviable position of having a strong in-house first base candidate and having the flexibility to improve the roster the rest of this winter.
The loss of Alex Meyer further depletes an already mediocre minor league system for the Nationals, and although his chances are not extraordinarily high, Meyer does have the potential to be a top-of-the-rotation starter if everything comes together. If this occurs, the Nationals will look quite foolish for parting with a front-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, the most valuable commodity in baseball, for an above-average but not All-Star caliber center fielder in this trade. However, Span is a natural fit for this Nationals team, drastically upgrading the defense in the outfield and the on-base percentage at the top of the lineup, and by trading a prospect the front office did not deplete the major league roster.
The Nationals essentially made the choice that they preferred Denard Span at 3-years and $21 million dollars if it meant trading Alex Meyer rather than signing B.J. Upton or Michael Bourn at 5-years and $75+ million dollars and keeping Alex Meyer but losing a draft choice: signing either elite free agent would have cost the Nationals their 2013 1st round pick as compensation. Considering Span’s career .283/.342/.395 batting line is comparable to Upton’s (.255/.336/.422) and Bourn’s (.272/.339/.365), it is difficult to quibble with the decision that parting with Alex Meyer was worth the upgrade to a roster challenging for the World Series and saving up to $50 million in future payroll. Although he does not have Upton’s collection of tools or Bourn’s game changing speed, Span clearly makes the Nationals a stronger team in 2013 and while Meyer’s loss does have the potential to burn the team in the future, this was an excellent trade the Nationals should have made.
NatsGM Grade -> Solid B
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