The Nationals could have easily gone out and dropped $75-85 million on a big-name free agent center fielder.
Michael Bourn and B.J. Upton were both out there for the taking until Upton landed with the Braves two days ago, and signing either would have turned heads and qualified as a big splash.
Instead of going in that direction and being on the hook for a monster five-year deal, the Nats took the creative route. They made a deal with the Twins for Denard Span, a 28-year-old center fielder who is owed just $11.25 million over the next two years, or $20.25 million over three years, if you include his 2015 club option.
In Span, the Nats will get a solid leadoff guy and strong defender in what could be his prime years (or close to them) at a very affordable rate, especially given the deals center fielders are getting these days. On top of that, the Nats don’t need to worry about boxing out top center field prospect Brian Goodwin at the major league level, as they would have done if a five-year pact had been reached with either Bourn or Upton.
Span’s under team control for three years, meaning if Goodwin excels in the minors and is ready for the bigs in 2015 or even a bit earlier, the Nats likely won’t have much trouble shipping Span and his reasonable salary to a team in need of outfield help.
When GM Mike Rizzo said the Span deal fit the Nationals perfectly, he wasn’t kidding. Span’s skill set, the length and terms of his contract, his character and the fact that he’s a left-handed hitter all make for a good marriage between the player and his new team.
Yes, to get Span, the Nationals gave up a promising young talent in hard-throwing right-hander Alex Meyer, the 6-foot-9, 2011 first-round pick. Meyer might very well have been the Nats’ top pitching prospect, and some scouts feel he has the potential to become a No. 2 starter in the bigs. But there are some questions about Meyer (his ability to repeat his mechanics being the major one) and he won’t be major league ready for another year or two.
The Nationals feel they’re close to taking the next step and making another serious run at the World Series this year. Enter Span.
So what happens now? The Nationals’ outfield is set, but they have a decision to make at first base and still need to find a guy to fill out their starting rotation.
Here’s where all the fun speculative talk starts to really pick up.
Now that an outfield of Span, Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth is in place, the Nats appear to have three options at first base - have Michael Morse take over, re-sign Adam LaRoche and trade Morse, or hand the job to Tyler Moore and trade Morse.
In other words, Morse is almost certainly either the Nationals’ starting first baseman in 2013, or he’ll be playing elsewhere.
With Span and his very affordable contract on board, the Nationals could bite the bullet, up their offer to LaRoche and do what it takes to bring back their Gold Glove- and Silver Slugger-winning first baseman. Such a move would give the Nats another potent left-handed bat and arguably make the Nats the best defensive team in the majors.
The Nats could also stand pat and stick Morse at first, where he looked pretty good in 2011. In that case, Moore could be a trade chip, if Rizzo is willing to part with the 25-year-old slugger.
Of course, the money the Nats will save by paying their center fielder and leadoff man just $11.25 million over the next two years could also be put towards another stud starting pitcher.
Zack Greinke will demand four Brinks trucks be backed up to his house (and the Dodgers might well give it to him), but not even he is off limits for the Nationals. Other free agent starters like Anibal Sanchez or Kyle Lohse are also in play.
The Nats had plenty of payroll flexibility before landing their new center fielder, and that hasn’t changed with Span now on board. Had Bourn or Upton been brought on, that wouldn’t necessarily be the case.