The Washington Nationals filled one of their longest-standing needs Thursday and, in turn, opened up a litany of options as they build their roster for the 2013 season.
The Nationals acquired center fielder Denard Span from the Minnesota Twins for right-hander Alex Meyer, one of the team's top pitching prospects. Span, 28, has two years left on his contract with a team option for the 2015 season. He gives the Nationals the bona fide leadoff-hitting center fielder they have been seeking for years.
"I think he's going to bring a dimension to the club that we haven't had before," said general manager Mike Rizzo, who scouted Span in high school and has long been interested in him.
The Nationals attempted to acquire him at the 2011 trade deadline but ultimately thought the Twins' asking price, rumored to include closer Drew Storen, was too high.
A year and a half later, Rizzo got his man.
"A year and a half ago, when I first heard the rumors, I definitely don't think I was ready for it then," said Span, who dealt with a concussion for much of the 2011 season but has since been cleared.
"But fast-forward to now, I'm definitely ready for it. I'm ready to be coming to a team that's already in place to win. I just hope I can come here and fit in and not get in the way."
Suddenly, many of the Nationals' offseason questions disappeared. In their place was a long list of options.
Span's addition, which came a day after the Atlanta Braves agreed to terms with free agent outfielder B.J. Upton, moves Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth into the corner outfield spots full time. It also would seem to mean that Michael Morse shifts to first base with Tyler Moore continuing to serve as a bench player.
But the Nationals remain in contract talks with first baseman Adam LaRoche and could bring back the left-handed slugger while making another move with Morse, who is a free agent after the 2013 season. He likely would command a strong return, possibly involving the fifth starting pitcher Washington is seeking. The Nationals have fielded inquiries on Morse, Rizzo said.
"It gives us some options in dealing with our roster," Rizzo said. "We also have a lot of other things on our agenda to improve the ballclub, because as we've seen, the other teams in our league, they're not standing pat.
"They're trying to do better, and we're trying to put the right moves in to compete with them and to stay a competitive ballclub."
Span will make $11.25 million over the next two seasons and has a $9 million option for 2015, so his contract fits the Nationals well. It won't hinder their payroll flexibility and also won't block some of their talented but raw center-field prospects the way a long-term free agent deal would have.
A career .284 hitter with a .357 on-base percentage, Span is an established major leaguer who has spent all but 25 of his 574 major league starts hitting out of the No. 1 spot in the Twins' lineup. A left-hander, Span allows the Nationals to transition Werth and Harper, their primary 1-2 combination in 2012, lower in the order, giving them one of the most formidable lineups in the game.
"I'm definitely a grinder," Span said when asked to describe his style of play. "I love to go get it out in center field. I thrive on being one of the best leadoff hitters in the game, or trying to be. I love setting the tone. I love getting up to start the game and taking pitches and trying to give my teammates the best look they can and try to set the tone and try to get on base.
"I'm still a work in progress ... I'm not going to stop working."
The price to acquire Span was high. Meyer is a 6-foot-9 flame-throwing right-hander who represented the Nationals in the 2012 Futures Game in Kansas City. One of their first-round draft picks from an impressive 2011 haul, Meyer was on the fast track to the majors.
The Nationals knew the cost would be significant, just as they knew the price would be high when they acquired Gio Gonzalez from Oakland for four prospects last December. They thought it was worth it.
"To get a good, established major league player at Denard's age with the contract that he has, you're going to have to give up a good, quality player," Rizzo said.
"To give up an Alex Meyer for Denard Span, it's always a difficult decision to make. But it was one we felt fit our timeframe, fit our skill set and was something that the front office and ownership was willing to do."
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