The Washington Nationals acquired Denard Span from the Minnesota Twins for minor league pitcher Alex Meyer on Thursday, giving the reigning NL East champions a natural centre fielder and leadoff hitter — and setting off a chain reaction in the lineup both offensively and defensively.
A career .284 hitter with 90 steals and a .357 on-base percentage during five seasons with the Twins, Span comes to the Nationals with a set of talents the team has been seeking since it moved to Washington in 2005.
"He's going to bring a dimension to the club that we haven't had before," general manager Mike Rizzo said, "a fast-moving, exciting guy that makes contact and moves the guy around and can fly around the field."
Span's arrival allows the Nationals to move 20-year-old Bryce Harper to a corner outfield spot — probably left field, with Jayson Werth staying in right. Michael Morse could then move to first base — the position played by free agent slugger Adam LaRoche.
Rizzo said the team is still in talks with LaRoche and has entertained some trade queries about Morse, so either player could end up at first next season.
"It gives us some options in dealing with our roster," Rizzo said.
Harper, a converted catcher, had some adventures in centre field this season but was also a sparkplug, doing enough with his bat and glove to win the NL's Rookie of the Year award.
"He's a terrific young centre fielder," Rizzo said. "But we felt for his long-term development and his career path that we wanted to move him out of a taxing position of centre field, both mentally taxing and physically taxing. We've accomplished that."
The trade also allows the Nationals to move Werth, an unconventional leadoff hitter, down in the lineup. Werth batted in the top spot this year essentially by default.
"I think his best skillset is farther down," Rizzo said, "in a run-producing type of spot."
Span's name has surfaced in trade rumours for much of the past two years, including some interest from the Nationals in 2010. He asserted himself as one of the Twins' building blocks in 2009 and 2010, emerging as a quality leadoff hitter and versatile outfielder.
'I'm ready to be coming to a team that is already in a place to win, and I just hope that I can come here and not get in the way.' —Nationals outfielder Denard Span
Span will be entering the fourth year of a $16.5 million US, five-year contract with a $9 million club option for a sixth year. His deal was considered quite a bargain for the Twins given Span's production in the first two seasons, but he only played in 70 games in 2011 because of issues with concussions and migraines, then worked to revamp his diet and workout regimen to try to better manage the situation.
"Hearing trade talks and going through a concussion wasn't easy for me," said Span, who was born in Washington but has never lived in the city. "But fast-forward to today — and I'm definitely ready. I'm ready to be coming to a team that is already in a place to win, and I just hope that I can come here and not get in the way."
Span played in 128 games this year, hitting .284 with four homers and 41 RBIs. He missed time late in the season due to a strained right collarbone, allowing Ben Revere to showcase his speed both in the outfield and at the plate.
"He took a step forward last year in our minds," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said of Revere. "He played well. He played with a wealth of energy. This should fit."
The Twins are coming off back-to-back last-place finishes in the AL Central and were in desperate need of starting pitchers. Scott Diamond is the only proven starter on the roster right now and there is a dearth of power arms in the farm system to help fill the need.
The one area of strength the Twins had to deal for pitching was outfield, with Span and Revere with the big league team and promising prospects such as Aaron Hicks in the minor leagues. So while Span was a valuable player on the field and one of the respected veterans in the clubhouse, he was a natural candidate to be dangled in a trade.
Meyer should help, but not in the short-term. The 6-foot-9 flamethrower went 10-6 with a 2.86 ERA splitting time at Class A Potomac and Hagerstown this year.
"He's a starting pitcher, which we need" Ryan said. "He's got the stuff, he's got the frame, he throws it over the plate. ... He played in two different A-ball leagues last year. On the surface that means he's not as close as you'd like, but we'll let him dictate his pace and see exactly how he responds to it."