- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 28, 2013

White cinder block walls lead the way. Past the security guard in need of a cup of coffee just after 8 a.m. on a cool March morning. Through the makeshift clubhouse kitchen at Space Coast Stadium where three plug-in griddles serve up pancakes and eggs with toppings stored in plastic containers.

The new bunch is back here.

Dodge the rolling laundry carts and folding plastic tables with rolls of paper towels and salt and pepper shakers and a lonesome stack of McDonald’s coupons in the Washington Nationals’ spring training home in Viera, Fla. The trio is near waist-high garbage cans and the dust-covered boom box with a bottle of leather conditioner resting on top.

One long-rumored trade and $41 million in free agent contracts ushered Denard Span, Dan Haren and Rafael Soriano into the long room that smells of breakfast and wood bats. That’s the outside, at least. Why a team that rolled up 98 wins and baseball’s top record, then missed advancing to the National League Championship Series by one measly strike — inches, really — acquired the three men is a tale more complex than a few lines in a transaction column.

They aren’t tweaks or tinkering. They’re an aggressive, and in some cases unexpected, effort to make a good team great. They bring risk: Span’s extended concussion struggle, Haren’s season hampered by injury and Soriano displacing two veterans from their roles. But the three are here because of the no-kidding charge from manager Davey Johnson that the coming season will go bust without the World Series.Peel back the black slipcovers on the nearby moldering couches and a faded (distinctly nonbaseball) floral pattern appears. The same is true of how the trio came to be in this clubhouse. There’s a story under the surface. Just don’t expect any flowers.

Moving quickly to bolster the team in the offseason, the Nationals led off by trading for outfielder Denard Span. Washington subsequently added veteran Dan Haren as the fifth starter and signed Rafael Soriano (inset) to be the team's new closer. (Associated Press)
Moving quickly to bolster the team in the offseason, the Nationals led ... more >

The first move rang Denard Span’s phone Nov. 29. He happened to be in his home’s unheated pool in Tampa, Fla., to cool off after working out. Span saw the 612 area code. Minneapolis. Figured a Minnesota Twins staffer was calling with arrangements for TwinsFest. Instead, general manager Terry Ryan told Span that his Twins career was over.

Span expected the call. Too many outfield prospects lurked in the upper levels of Minnesota’s minor-league system that, coincidentally, was starved for pitching. Part of Span, though, clung to hope he’d remain with the team that drafted him in 2002.

Reality arrived with the offseason. He figured Atlanta (replacing Michael Bourn) or Tampa Bay (replacing B.J. Upton) were likely destinations. Washington? A deal collapsed at the July trade deadline in 2011 while Span recovered from concussion-related problems

“I figured they moved past me,” he said.

General manager Mike Rizzo hadn’t forgotten. He scouted Span at Tampa Catholic High School and, a decade later, the center fielder presented the opportunity to solve a series of problems in one move. Span doesn’t strike out much, can steal a base and pushed his on-base percentage to .342 in 2012. That’s an ideal fit to end the years-long flux atop the Nationals’ lineup, where a series of nontraditional leadoff men managed a .325 on-base percentage last season.

“Last season we was needing a really good leadoff hitter,” said catcher Wilson Ramos, briefly teammates with Span in Minnesota. “Now we’ve got him.”

The ripples push Jayson Werth from the top to a run-producing spot lower in the order that better suits his skill-set.And, oh, can Span patrol center field. That’s not where Rizzo and the front office wanted Bryce Harper long-term. Too much wear. So, Harper shifts to left. Swap Span for Michael Morse, the other regular in last season’s outfield, and defensive metrics hint at the extent of the upgrade to the group. Long since dealt to the Seattle Mariners, Morse distinguished himself with a powerful bat and A-ha walk-up music, not misadventures in the outfield.

Take the ultimate zone rating, which splits the field into 64 zones and calculates the number of runs a player saves or costs his team compared to a league-average player at the position. The statistic isn’t perfect, but it’s a solid indicator of a player’s range. Morse checked in at minus-15.2 runs per 150 games for his outfield career; Span is at plus-6.1.

All this came wrapped in a team-friendly contract of $11.25 million for the next two seasons (with a team option of $9 million in 2015), not to mention the easy smiles and affable personality Span is known for. The cost? Fireballing 6-foot-9 prospect Alex Meyer.

Relief hit the 29-year-old Span a couple of days after the surprise of the destination wore off. The rumors were finished.

Story Continues →