Mike Rizzo struck late Thursday afternoon, pulling a big trade for a starting outfielder. No, it wasn’t Marlins-Toronto big, but it was big for this team, as they at the very least have solidified the outfield and their lineup could potentially be set for 2013. They received Twins center fielder Denard Span in exchange for their 22 year old fireballing prospect, Alex Meyer.

What They’re Getting

There is alot to like about Denard Span. He is a 28 year old center fielder, and over his last 3 seasons, he’s hit .271/.334/.376 – while it looks quite a bit lower, it’s actually pretty comparable to Michael Bourn when adjusting for league and park effects. It’s an OPS+ of 95, barely below Bourn’s OPS+ of 98 over the last three years. Of course, he’s only stolen 1/3 of the bases of Bourn, but Span is also a year younger than Bourn, and has shown more patience in the past. Between the switching leagues, moving to a better lineup and the youth, I have a feeling Span will hit better than that with the Nats (this is of course, just a feeling).

He will probably hit leadoff, because he looks like the classic leadoff CF speedy type. His OBP hasn’t been quite high enough lately to say he’s ideal for that spot, but if he has the same .342 OBP he did in 2012, you’d be happy with that. And besides filling the leadoff spot in the lineup, he also fills the missing lefty spot. Harper was the only lefty starting position player in the lineup, and Espinosa‘s a switch hitter, so this adds a third LH hitter vs RHP, which is important.

Defensively Span is a very good center fielder and covers serious ground. He is not quite the plus plus defender than Bourn is, to keep the comparison going, but he is as good as almost anyone else. Adding Span quite possibly makes the Nationals the best defensive team in baseball. Even if Morse ends up as the first baseman, they’re right up there, and it would be hard to find a better defensive outfield.

It’s worth noting that Span’s career OBP is actually .357, and some of his recent struggles may be attributed to injury issues, specifically concussions. He definitely had concussion issues in 2012, and if he is completely over those issues, it stands to reason he will be an even better hitter than he’s been recently. But it also means he is at risk to have more concussion issues, which could put him out for a while.

He’s under contract for two more years, plus an option for a third year. He’s cheaper and gives them much more flexibility than Bourn, or Upton for that matter. He’s pretty similar to Bourn, although not quite at the same level, and he’s been more valuable than Upton the last few seasons (although he doesn’t have the potential that BJ may or may not realize). He’s only owed an average of $6.75 M over the next 3 seasons, or $5.875 M for the next 2 if they buy him out in 2015. If one of their center field minor league options pan out, they won’t be forced to deal someone. If they don’t, Span is here for 3 more seasons, which only takes him to age 32.

What they gave up

Alex Meyer was the Nats top pitching prospect, and he performed well this season for sure. He was #5 on the BP prospect list for the Nats last year, but he was definitely going to move up the list this year, possibly to #2 behind only Rendon. He’s had a great start to his minor league career, especially considering he had serious control issues in college. He may not end up a front line starter, but if he doesn’t, it’s probably because he ends up as a back of the bullpen guy. He is a real prospect, and losing him depletes the farm system even further.

Before you think this was alot to give up, keep in mind what Keith Law said in his chat, minutes before the trade was announced. He was asked about trading for Span, and he said he “Should net a mid-rotation guy.” Meyer certainly looks like a mid-rotation starter, if not more. But that aint happening next season, or maybe even the season after, at least it wouldn’t have in Washington (he might get a quicker opportunity on a weak Minnesota team). Of course, he might end up being a front line starter, and the Nats might eventually regret this trade. Eventually. Unless they win it all.

The Verdict

This fills a bunch of needs that the Nats have – lefty, speedster, leadoff type, center fielder. This lineup looks a little different now, putting power and OBP through at least the 2-5 spot now, behind a more standard leadoff hitter. They can at this point plan on having a lineup of Span, Werth, Harper, Zimmerman, Morse and Desmond up top. This was a good trade in that respect, and the Nats should be looking to complete this squad rather than be too concerned with their farm system. They may be losing an ace, or a closer, or a setup man, or something much less, but it isn’t apparent right now what Alex Meyer is.

Rizzo has sent a clear signal that they are in “win now” mode, and are willing to make future sacrifices to do so. And with the way this rotation looks right now, it’s hard to criticize them losing a pitching prospect (although it’s perfectly reasonable to say the didn’t get ENOUGH for one, if that’s what you believe).

I like this deal and I think Span, who also has a reputation for being a great clubhouse guy, will be a solid addition to a team that already had the best record in baseball last season.

Does This Settle First Base?

Of course, there is a bonus question for this trade. While there is the possibility that this basically means the Nats are done with free agency this offseason, besides perhaps a #5 pitcher and some bullpen help, this is far from certain. Immediately after the trade I had a twitter “conversation” with Barry Svrluga who agreed that LaRoche isn’t necessarily the odd man out

So will they sign LaRoche and then trade Morse? Maybe they’d be able to get their #5 starter for him. Or maybe they’d prefer to go with Morse and Moore manning first base, although without a platoon ability there I am doubtful about that. And, I don’t think they want to just give the job to Moore if they moved Morse. The best team the Nats could put together in 2013 at this point would probably involve re-signing LaRoche. Rizzo has certainly shown us that putting together a team to win it all in 2013 is his top priority, so I wouldn’t rule out that possibility.

By Charlie