- 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.

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.

“I was moving on with my life and career,” he said.

The second move almost didn’t happen. Dan Haren felt like his 21/2 years with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim were about to end after last season. That’s where the complications, as the laid-back Southern California native calls them, began.

A low back strain harangued the onetime ace much of the year and landed him on the 15-day disabled list. He managed 1762/3 innings (that broke a string of pitching at least 216 innings each season since 2005), but velocity dropped. Haren’s fastball dipped from the low 90s to 88.5 miles per hour. Same with his cutter and curveball. All down.

The Angels weren’t going to pick up his $15 million option. Haren tries not to think about this much. He wanted to return to the area where he grew up in a Los Angeles suburb and played at Pepperdine University in Malibu. A last-minute deal to send him to the Chicago Cubs for Carlos Marmol fell through. So, the Angels bought out Haren’s contract for $3.5 million and he became a free agent.

A short-term contract to re-establish his value was the plan.

“Last year didn’t go the way I wanted it to,” Haren said. “I’ve got to go out and prove I’m healthy, and who knows what’ll happen next year.”

The Nationals made a competitive offer, $13 million for one year that Haren agreed to Dec. 7 without so much as a recruiting trip to Washington. He liked being able to slide into a rotation stacked with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler. Nobody would lean on Haren to be the No. 1. And, most importantly, the Nationals were poised to win. The idea of moving cross-country was the toughest part.

“He’s healthy. And if he’s healthy, look out,” said Kurt Suzuki, who caught Haren with the Oakland Athletics in 2007. “He’s a special type of pitcher.”

That’s the gamble, bringing on a pitcher with a No. 1’s ability to replace the strong-armed but inconsistent Edwin Jackson at the back of the rotation. If Haren’s back and arm return to the form of previous seasons, the Nationals have an unabashed bargain without the long-term payroll entanglement a free agent like Zack Greinke would’ve brought.

The 32-year-old Haren may be the rotation’s old man, but he didn’t come here to mentor young pitchers. He’s adamant about that. There’s nothing he thinks he can teach them.

So, Haren reclines at his locker between Gonzalez and Strasburg, far from home, but looking as if he already belongs.

The third move shocked. With established closers Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen on the roster, signing Soriano on Jan. 17 to fill that job strengthened a strength. That’s how Rizzo put it.

Drawing a line from the cold October night at Nationals Park when heavy plastic sheets hung in the team’s clubhouse to shield the inevitable beer-and-Champagne deluge after the decisive Game 5 of the National League Division Series to Soriano’s addition is understandable. One strike away from ending the game and Pete Kozma’s stadium-silencing two-run single and Storen stunned at his locker next to the tarps that couldn’t be removed in time.

But the Nationals insist the two-year, $28 million deal (half is deferred; there’s a team option for 2015, too) isn’t a reaction to last season ending abruptly enough to produce whiplash. No, the move is a luxury to deepen a bullpen that limited batters to a .231 average last season. While Clippard scuffled in the second half of a season during which he piled up 32 saves, the bullpen’s earned run average, strikeouts per nine innings and walks didn’t change much in two fewer innings than the first half.

“To me, I think every team find something that they need,” Soriano said. “They think they need the closer, the veteran that can help the young guy and they picked me for that situation and I’m so happy that they did.”

The 33-year-old Soriano is next to an empty locker, well away from Storen and Clippard. Those two are in-season roommates and have lockers next to each other. Soriano isn’t like his wisecracking, tight-knit and much younger bullpen mates. The quiet newcomer keeps to himself and operates on his own schedule, to Johnson’s amusement. Try to find Soriano after he pitches and, like a ghost, he’s usually long since disappeared.

“Oh, yeah, I feel old right now,” Soriano said, then laughed.

After saving 42 games for the New York Yankees last season while Mariano Rivera recovered from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Soriano opted out of the final season of his three-year, $35 million contract on faith a better deal (and opportunity to close with Rivera returning) existed elsewhere. The pitcher had no idea where he’d land. Discussions between his agent, Scott Boras, and the Nationals started in November. Owner Ted Lerner became involved.

That snagged the veteran with 132 saves over 11 seasons, gave the Nationals their most experienced closer since Chad Cordero and squeezed an upgrade into the last part of the roster with room for one.

In the clubhouse, conversation hums like the large refrigerator crammed with bottles of water. Playing cards and cellphones come out. Bowls of granola and plates of ham and eggs filter back from the kitchen. The trio waits on red-and-blue stools. The clock ticks down.

World Series or bust? That starts here.

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