How Denard Span to the Washington Nationals Impacts the NL

Ian CasselberryMLB Lead WriterNovember 29, 2012

It's been an interesting 24 hours for NL East contenders looking for center fielders.

The Atlanta Braves essentially kicked the free-agent shopping season into motion by signing B.J. Upton to a five-year, $75.25 million contract on Wednesday.

One day later, the Washington Nationals got the center fielder and leadoff hitter general manager Mike Rizzo has coveted for the last couple of years.

Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal was the first to report that the Nats nabbed Denard Span from the Minnesota Twins for top pitching prospect Alex Meyer. The Nationals tried to get Span at the 2011 trade deadline in exchange for closer Drew Storen.

What are the immediate ramifications of this deal?

Obviously, the NL East champions got better with this trade. The Nationals could have gone into next season with Michael Morse in left field, Bryce Harper playing center and Jayson Werth in right. Adam LaRoche would also likely have returned to play first base.

But as much as the Nats might like to keep LaRoche after he slugged 33 home runs with 100 RBI this season, Morse can now move over to first base. He'll cost $6.75 million next year compared to whatever LaRoche gets on the free-agent market. 

What the Nats might lose on offense, they'll gain on defense. Span was excellent in center field, according to FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating. He saved eight runs more than the average player at that position and was credited with 20 defensive runs saved.

Though UZR says Harper was best as a center fielder, he still rates as above-average defensively in left field. Werth had a bad year in right field, according to UZR, and having Span next to him should give him less range to cover. 

Overall, advanced metrics ranked the Nats 26th out of 30 teams in team outfield defense last season. That will definitely change with the new trio of outfielders D.C. can play next season. 

The Nationals could explore trading Morse and would probably find several teams interested in a corner outfielder or first baseman capable of hitting 30 homers making less than $7 million. But keeping Morse allows the Nats to devote their resources toward signing another starting pitcher or reliever.

Another starting pitcher? The Nationals are already loaded with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler.

But they will lose Edwin Jackson to free agency and have an excellent opportunity to upgrade. The Nats have been mentioned as a possible suitor for Zack Greinke, but will probably lose out there. At the very least, this could be an indication that Rizzo is looking to add yet another top starter to his rotation, and Greinke isn't the only one on the market.

In the bullpen, keeping left-hander Sean Burnett could be expensive, judging from the three-year, $18 million deal Jeremy Affeldt signed with the San Francisco Giants this winter. Burnett arguably had a better 2012 than Affeldt, posting a lower ERA, appearing in more games and compiling a higher strikeout rate.  

How does the Span trade affect other teams in the NL, specifically the Nats' NL East rivals?

Span going to the Nationals is something of a blow to the Braves. Atlanta still needs a left fielder and was reportedly looking at Span to fill that position and give its lineup a leadoff hitter. The Braves may now turn toward a deal for the Colorado Rockies' Dexter Fowler or signing free agent Shane Victorino. 

Interestingly, the Nationals may have helped the Philadelphia Phillies by trading for Span rather than pursuing free-agent center fielder Michael Bourn.

The Nats were considered the favorites to sign Bourn, but now obviously don't need him. The Phillies still need a center fielder and leadoff hitter, however. And the best one is still available on the open market. 

Of course, there's also plenty of speculation that the Phillies could go after Josh Hamilton. If that's how it ends up working out for Philadelphia, then the Span trade didn't affect their fortunes very much.

Bourn could presumably also be an option for the San Francisco Giants if they decide he's a suitable upgrade over Angel Pagan in center field. But the Giants' preference is probably to keep Pagan, who played so well for them this past season. 

The Cincinnati Reds are another NL team looking for a leadoff hitter and outfielder that likely benefited from the Nationals trading for Span rather than signing Bourn. Bourn is probably out of the Reds' price range, but Pagan and Victorino could still be in play for them. 

Rizzo made a great trade for his team, finally getting the center fielder he's been seeking for his roster. Though Alex Meyer is a high price to pay, he's still a few years away from the majors and the Nationals are in position to contend for a division title and World Series now. This is the kind of deal a contender makes. 

The Span trade might also have the fringe benefit of hurting a division rival. But it's intriguing how much the Nats may have helped other teams in the league by keeping Bourn out there on the open market.

How that plays out next season is worth keeping an eye on. 


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