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After searching for a long-term solution in center field for several years, the Nationals entered this offseason with a bevy of options at the position. The free agent class was deep with B.J. Upton, Michael Bourn, and Angel Pagan. Throw Josh Hamilton in there, the year’s top overall free agent, and few offseasons offer as many choices.
But instead of taking the free agent route, the Nationals pulled the trigger on a trade target long rumored to be on their wish list. In comes 28 year old Denard Span from the Minnesota Twins in exchange for top pitching prospect Alex Meyer. The Nationals decided to go with a cheaper, more short-term choice in Span, but still got the leadoff hitter and defensive stud they were coveting.
Acquiring Span shows that general manager Mike Rizzo opted for flexibility over flash. But looking at Span in comparison to this year’s other options, the difference really isn’t that dramatic.
Take a look at how Span stacked up against the free agents in 2012:
B.J. Upton (28 years old)
146 G - .246/.298/.454 – 79 R – 28 HR – 78 RBI – 31 SB
Michael Bourn (29 years old)
155 G - .274/.348/.391 – 96 R – 9 HR – 57 RBI – 42 SB
Denard Span (28 years old)
128 G - .283/.342/.395 – 71 R – 4 HR – 41 RBI – 17 SB
Angel Pagan (31 years old)
154 G - .288/.338/.440 – 95 R – 8 HR – 56 RBI – 29 SB
Despite being tied to the Nationals in rumors, Upton was a poor fit from the beginning. He bats right handed, doesn’t slot well at the leadoff position, and would require the biggest contract of the group. He does have the best power numbers of the four, but when healthy the Nats’ lineup has plenty of big bats. They needed someone who could set the table and slot their core hitters later in the lineup.
Bourn made the most sense for the Nationals of the three free agents given his track record as a leadoff hitter, but with his age and contract demands the Nats decided to look elsewhere. Span has a similar batting average and on-base percentage, also hits lefty, and also plays good defense in center field. Oh, and he’s two years younger (Bourn turns 30 in December).
Pagan may have simply been too old as well as he turns 32 during the middle of the 2013 season. He just won a World Series with the Giants, but was never linked seriously to Washington.
Given the age of Bourn and the sub-.300 OBP of Upton, combined with their asking prices, why wouldn’t you prefer Span? The Nationals will now have Span on the books through 2014 with $11.25 million owed and a team option for 2015. If they signed either Bourn or Upton they would be locking in all three outfield positions for the foreseeable future, two with massive deals. Just ask the Angels how that method can backfire.
Instead of sacrificing a lot of money to improve in center field, the Nationals decided to give up their best pitching prospect. Alex Meyer could someday make the Nats’ regret letting him go, but the short-term flexibility might be worth the risk.
24 hours ago it looked like the Nationals were in a tough position this offseason, trying to improve their outfield while preventing a drop-off at first base. Now the ball is in Rizzo’s court. He has leverage with Adam LaRoche, an enviable trade chip in Michael Morse, and a defensively sound lead-off hitter in Denard Span.
Instead of making a move looking four or five years into the future, the Nationals have a solution for the next two or three years. By then prospect Brian Goodwin could be ready for the majors and, between he and Span, the Nats will likely have the position on lock throughout their championship window. In the meantime, Span gives them everything they wanted out of Bourn and Upton, but without the price and long-term commitment.