Outfield talks stall, Nats maintain interest in Cespedes, would use Desmond at leadoff

DALLAS - Twins center fielder Denard Span apparently is off the market, the Nationals continue to express an interest in Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and if they don’t land the leadoff hitter/center fielder they’ve established as a priority for the offseason, the Nats are confident Ian Desmond can handle the job at the top of the lineup.

General manager Mike Rizzo covered a lot of ground during his afternoon briefing with reporters - just like the swift flychaser he wants patrolling the spacious gaps at Nationals Park - but it appears the Nats remain in wait-and-see mode when it comes to their center field opening.

Twins GM Terry Ryan apparently took Span out of the mix Wednesday, perhaps because he’s concerned the player isn’t fully recovered from the concussion that cut short his 2011 season and maybe because the Twins want to make sure they have some outfield inventory while they are awaiting a decision from free agent Michael Cuddyer, who they hope to re-sign.

“I’ve spoken to Terry a couple of times. If he says (Span is) off the market, he hasn’t said that to me. I haven’t heard him said that. He hasn’t said that to me,” he said. “If he said that, they’re probably waiting to see if Denard’s healthy, over the concussion, and to see what his value is as a healthy player.”

With nothing on the front burner as far as a center fielder, Rizzo will wait and see how the market develops. He’s spoken with a number of clubs, sometimes inquiring about veterans, sometimes looking at top minor leaguers whose progress to the major leagues may be blocked.

“We’re in discussions with a bunch of teams,” Rizzo said. “We’ve got a lot of lines in the water. These things usually have a synergy of their own and when we get some momentum, things can happen. We’re not going to force anything. It has to be the right fit and the right acquisition cost for the player.”

One name that still intrigues the Nationals is 26-year-old Cuban Yoenis Cespedes, who must still establish residency in the Dominican Republic before Major League Baseball will declare him a free agent. Rizzo saw Cespedes in person in a workout in the Dominican shortly after Thanksgiving and remains interested in him.

“We’ve scouted him very thoroughly,” Rizzo said of Cespedes, a right-handed hitter who started for Cuba in the 2009 World Baseball Classic and defected to the Dominican Republic earlier this year. “We like the player. He’s a great talent, (but) he’s an unproven commodity in our minds. He’s one of several options that we’re considering.”

Cespedes is considered a potential five-tool player, but there are questions how quickly he can adapt to the American style of baseball.

“I’ve seen him in a workout scenario, so it’s a little more difficult for me to say,” Rizzo said. “Our scouts have scouted him in games. They like his skill set. I think it’s to be determined if he’s immediately major league-ready or whether he’d have to get a little flavor of the American game down in the minor leagues before he gets brought up. What I’ve found in my experience, the Cuban player takes a while to acclimate to the U.S. game. He may be an exception, but to me, that’s the norm I’ve found.”

With left-hander Mark Buehrle off the board now that he’s signed with the Marlins, the Nationals probably don’t have sufficient pitching depth to include a starting pitcher in a trade for a center fielder. That could mean shortstop Ian Desmond returns as a leadoff hitter in 2012, a role in which he batted .281 in 50 games, mostly during the second half.

Rizzo’s preference remains to find a leadoff hitter who can play center field. But if he can’t, Rizzo doesn’t mind starting 2012 with Desmond atop the lineup.

“Davey and I both feel comfortable that Ian can hit at the top of the lineup, so we feel good about that,” Rizzo said. “Run creation is done a lot of different ways. He may not be the optimum leadoff hitter, but we feel he has the skill set to do so and we can be an effective lineup with him at the top.”

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