WASHINGTON - The Nationals ended their long-standing search for a center fielder and leadoff hitter at the high cost of their top pitching prospect, acquiring Denard Span from the Minnesota Twins for right-handed flamethrower Alex Meyer.
The deal sets up the rest of their offseason, with the Nationals now more likely to move on from free agent first baseman Adam LaRoche while moving Michael Morse to first base and Bryce Harper to a corner outfield spot.
Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said opposing teams have inquired about Morse, who is a free agent after next season, and other players on the Nationals roster. Rizzo said the Nationals continue negotiations with LaRoche, but Thursday's move provides the team with flexibility if they decide to deal Morse or fail to re-sign LaRoche.
Span, 28, is signed through the 2014 season with a $9 million team option for 2015 which gives the Nationals more flexibility in center field going forward than they would have had they signed a free agent such as Michael Bourn.
"We think we've got guys in the system that fulfill this role but they're years away, they're in the pipeline," Rizzo said. But as far as an established guy, at his age, he's a 28-year-old guy, just reaching the prime of his career with his skill set, I really think his game is going to translate to the National League really well."
Rizzo said he and Twins General Manager Terry Ryan had been talking about a potential trade for three or four weeks, and talks turn more fruitful after the early November general managers meetings in Indian Wells, Calif. The trade took final form this week, he said.
The Nationals had tried since 2010 to trade for Span, and now they have their man, a career .284 hitter with a .357 on-base percentage. Span struggled with a concussion and it's side effects in 2011, limited to only 70 games. But he was healthier in 2012, playing 128 games and finishing with a triple slash line of .283/.342/.738 with 17 stolen bases in 23 attempts and 71 runs scored. Rizzo said the Nationals medical staff evaluated Span and cleared him.
"His skill set is something that we were looking for, we've been looking for for a couple years," Rizzo said. "We're talking about a true defensive ball hawk, center field type of guy with great range. Sabermetrically and with the scout's eye, he's a front line defensive centerfield. He's the consummate leadoff-type of hitter. He appeals greatly to us for his skill set as an offensive player."