Mike Rizzo has had his eye on Denard Span for quite a while now.
The Nationals' general manager scouted Span a decade ago back at Catholic High School in Tampa, Fla., followed him through the Twins' organization and was close to pulling off a trade for Span two years ago.
Today, Rizzo finally got his guy.
The Nationals acquired Span from the Twins for right-handed pitching prospect Alex Meyer this evening. Span will play center field and hit leadoff for the Nats, taking over a role that they've been looking to fill for some time.
"His skill-set is something that we were looking for, we've been looking for for a couple years now," said Rizzo, who also made note of Span's high character and quality makeup. "You're talking about a true defensive ballhawk, center field type of guy with great range. Sabermetrically and with the scout's eye, he's a front-line defensive center fielder.
"He's a consummate leadoff-type of hitter. He appeals greatly to us because of his skill set as an offensive player. High-average guy, .350 on-base percentage type of guy. Doesn't strike out, one of the tougher guys in the league to strike out, so a contact bat. And can really, really run from the left side of the plate, which keeps our lineup balanced and a guy who in the past has stolen a lot of bases and we really feel is going to come into his own as a base stealer with us here in the National League."
Span is a career .284 hitter, has averaged 18 stolen bases a season and posted a .342 on-base percentage in 2012. He played just 70 games in 2011 due to concussion issues and saw action in 128 this last season, but Rizzo said the Nats don't see any lingering health issues being a factor going forward.
"He had an injury-free finish to the season and really had one heck of a season for the Twins," Rizzo said. "Our scouts saw him play very, very well, our medical people cleared him and we're confident that he's ready to roll into spring training."
With Span now in center field, Bryce Harper will move into a corner outfield spot. Rizzo declined to comment on whether the Nats were leaning toward having Harper play left field or putting him in right and sliding Jayson Werth to left, saying that would be something he and manager Davey Johnson would discuss. But it's clear Rizzo is thrilled with the Nationals' defensive abilities in the outfield.
"The way we look at it, we've got three players in Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Denard Span that can play center field in the major leagues effectively," Rizzo said. "So in effect, we have three center fielders playing the outfield for us. I think they're going to be a rangy bunch. They all throw well, they're accurate, and they're going to be an exciting group to watch. Ball's in the air, should be caught."
Rizzo noted again that the Nats could have stuck with Harper in center, but they preferred to move him to a corner outfield spot, a position which would take less of a physical and mental toll on him.
As for Michael Morse, Tyler Moore, Adam LaRoche and the first base job, well, the Nats now have plenty of options. They could still re-sign LaRoche, who is a free agent, although the chances of that seem to be decreasing. Morse might be the favorite to take over at first base, but Rizzo said Morse already has drawn some trade inquiries.
To make this deal, the Nats needed to part with Meyer, one of the top arms in their organization. A first-round pick out of the University of Kentucky in 2011, Meyer had a stellar first professional season, going 10-6 with a 2.86 ERA and 139 strikeouts in 129 innings between low-A Hagerstown and high-A Potomac this season. He was considered a year or two away from the majors, however, and with the Nats looking to improve now, Rizzo was willing to part with the flamethrowing righty.
"We understand the process," Rizzo said. "To get a good, established player at Denard's age with the contract that he has, you're going to have to give up a good, quality player. (Twins GM) Terry Ryan is one of the best general managers in the game. You're not going to pull the wool over his eyes, and you have to give to get. ... To give up an Alex Meyer for a Denard Span, it's always a difficult decision to make, but one that we felt fit our time frame, fit our skill set and was something that the front office and ownership was willing to do."
As I mentioned earlier, Span is under contract for two more years at $11.25 million total, with a $9 million club option for 2015. In a couple years, the Nats can take a look at some of their center field prospects, namely Brian Goodwin, and decide how to proceed at the position.
For now, Span is their guy, and they're happy to have him.
"We feel good about the contract situation. But more importantly, we feel great about the player, the person and the skill-set that he brings," Rizzo said. "He's going to bring a dimension to the club that we haven't had before - a real fast-moving, exciting guy that makes contact and moves the ball around and can fly around the field. It gives us added speed, stolen base potential and a guy that can really run down balls, which will further help our pitching staff."