Friday evening, as the clock ticks just past 7 p.m. at Nationals Park and the Washington Nationals meet the Atlanta Braves for the first of 19 times this season, Denard Span and B.J. Upton will patrol the same outfield.
Span, the Nationals’ prized trade piece from the winter, will take it first. Upton, the Braves’ big free agent signing, will follow him.
The two players probably won’t think anything of the moment.
But they very easily could have been meeting this weekend on opposite sides.
Way back in November, when the Nationals’ plans for the offseason had yet to be executed, they were intrigued by Upton.
“You hear all that talk,” manager Davey Johnson said Thursday afternoon, his team looking for a sweep from the Chicago White Sox and to head into the weekend’s divisional showdown on a three-game winning streak.
The Nationals had been linked to Upton for years, with general manager Mike Rizzo having drafted his brother (and now Braves left fielder) Justin Upton in the first round of the 2005 draft when he was with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“I knew we were looking for a center fielder,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, on the topic of whether he thought Upton, his childhood friend, might have wound up in Washington this offseason. “But B.J.’s not really a prototypical leadoff guy like Denard is. He’s obviously an unbelievable defensive center fielder and a guy that gives you speed and that sort of dynamic even if he’s not in the leadoff spot.
“I know we tried to trade for him in the past … so I knew there was a chance. I didn’t know how good of a chance or what, but I knew it was possible.”
The fit was never quite right, though. The Nationals were looking for someone who would fit the position, but that also brought a left-handed bat to the table, as well as skill out of the leadoff spot.
Upton, who quickly priced himself out of the range they were shopping in anyway, could only fulfill one of those qualifications.
Meanwhile, at home in Tampa, Span heard the trade rumors circulating.
Since the 2011 trade deadline, when the Nationals almost acquired him, he’d watched them swirl. Cincinnati, Atlanta, Washington, among a host of others. With Michael Bourn leaving Atlanta for free agency, Span knew which teams were looking and which weren’t. There was a chance the Braves could make a push for him.
But just as the Nationals felt Upton, who signed a five-year, $75 million deal with the Braves, wouldn’t quite seamlessly fit into their lineup, the Braves were looking to add a right-handed presence to theirs. Span could not provide it.
“At the time, we didn’t know if we were going to sign [first baseman Adam LaRoche], so we were really looking for a left-handed leadoff type,” Johnson said. “[Span] was the guy we thought we were going to get and we ended up getting. I know there was talk about Bourn, too, but that was a big money deal.”
In the transaction log, Span was traded to the Nationals on Nov. 29, 2012. Upton’s deal with the Braves became official the same day.
It could’ve been different. Several center fielders changed teams this winter, including Span’s former Twins teammate Ben Revere winding up in Philadelphia. Upton could have made his way closer to home in Washington. He may not have been teammates with his brother.
So far, the Nationals and Braves seem content with the way it worked out.
“We’re happy,” Johnson said.
“Anytime you can find a center field leadoff guy, there’s not many of them around,” Zimmerman said. “Usually better teams, who have a chance to make a run at something, that’s kind of one of the last pieces because it’s so hard to develop. You usually have to go out and get it. I guess it is kind of funny how they all ended up here [in the National League East].”