Driven. Talented. Rangy. Controllable (contract-wise). A strong defender. Leadoff hitter. A left-handed bat. Denard Span is everything the Washington Nationals said they wanted in an outfielder this winter.
The Nats acquired the 28-year-old Span in a trade with Minnesota tonight that sent 22-year-old, 2011 1st Round pick Alex Meyer to the Twins. Span finished his fifth MLB season with a .283/.342/.395 line, 38 doubles, four triples and four home runs in 128 games and 586 PAs over which he had a .989 fld% and just four errors total in a year he was worth +3.9 fWAR. "You're talking about a true defensive ballhawk center field type of guy with great range," Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo told reporters last night after announcing the deal.
"Sabermetrically and with a scout's eye, he's a front line defensive center fielder."
And more importantly from Washington's perspective, he's signed under a relatively modest deal through the next two seasons with an option for a third. The last two years of the 5-year extension Span signed with the Twins in 2010 will pay him $4.75M this season and $6.5M in 2014, with a club option for the soon-to-turn-29-year-old outfielder in 2015 that will pay him $9M if the team picks it up. The Nationals couldn't pass up a chance to acquire a player like Span even at the cost of the top pitching prospect in their organization.
"To get a good, established major league player at Denard's age, with the contract that he has," Rizzo said, "you're going to have to give up a good quality player."
It wasn't the first time the Nationals tried to acquire Span. There were plenty of rumors at the non-waiver deadline in 2011 about a trade that never transpired. The Nationals persisted and a year and a half later finally agreed with the Twins on a deal that got them the outfielder they felt they needed. Span told reporters Thursday night that he didn't think he was ready for a trade to happen if it had back in 2011.
"I think a year and a half ago when I first heard the rumors, I definitely [don't] think I was ready for it then," Span said. "But fast forward to now, I'm definitely ready for it, I'm ready to be coming to a team that already is in place to win and I just hope that I can come here and not get in the way." An arduous recovery process from concussions combined with all the rumors to make things difficult for Span at the time.
"It was probably one of the hardest things that I had to go through," the outfielder said, "The reason why I said that I wasn't ready for it a year and a half ago was because I was going through the concussions. You know, hearing trade talks and going through a concussion wasn't easy for me, but fast forward to today, I'm definitely ready."
Though he's coming off a strong 2012 campaign, Span said, "I don't feel like I played to my 100% capability last year, but I was able to go out and prove that I still can be a good player." His best season in the majors was in 2009 when he put up a .311/.392/.415 line with 16 doubles, 10 triples, eight HRs and 23 stolen bases in 145 games and 676 plate appearances over which he was worth +4.1 fWAR. In five major league seasons, Span has a .281/.350/.379 line.
In his first year away from the American League, Span will be joining the defending NL East champs as part of an outfield in Washington that will feature 2012 Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper and veteran Jayson Werth in a configuration to be determined when Davey Johnson speaks to Werth.
The Twins' '02 1st Round pick said he looked forward to the opportunity to play with his new teammates. "[I'm] very excited to be playing alongside [Harper and Werth], two All-Star caliber players," Span said, "and now I feel like I need to step my game up and try to get to an All-Star Game hopefully, but I think they're definitely going to elevate my game just by playing alongside with them."
What's also motivating Span is the enthusiasm Nats' general manager Mike Rizzo showed when he spoke to the newest National tonight after pursuing the outfielder for the last year and a half. "That's the greatest feeling any ballplayer can have, when you're wanted," Span explained, "And when a team does whatever they have to do I guess to trade for you or try to get you, acquire you whether it's free agency or in this case being traded and it was a good feeling to be wanted. When I talked to [GM Mike Rizzo], I could hear it in his voice how excited he was to have me, and when I heard his voice it kind of brought some energy into me because I just got off the phone with our GM and it was kind of a sad conversation and when I talked to [Rizzo] it kind of gave me some life."
Asked to describe himself as a player for anyone unfamilar with the outfielder's game, Span said, "I definitely believe I'm a grinder in the sense I love to have fun, I try to bring my 'A' game every game. I'm definitely going to bring a lot of range in the outfield. I love to go get it out in center field. I thrive on being one of the best leadoff hitters in the game, or trying to be. And I love setting the tone. I love getting up to start the game and taking pitches and trying to give my teammates the best look they can [get] and try to set the tone and get on base and stealing bases for me, I'm still a work in progress. I'm still trying to up that and I'm not going to start working until I do that."