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Revisiting the Washington Nationals trade for Denard Span

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Denard Span has been a fantastic addition for the Nationals over the past three seasons. Alex Meyer looked like he was going to be a nice return for the Twins, but was recently moved to the bullpen on a temporary basis. Let's hope this deal turns into the win-win deal it was supposed to be.

In November of 2012, the Nationals dealt pitching prospect Alex Meyer to Minnesota for Denard Span. Meyer was a rising star in the Twins organization prior to this season, but he's struggled so badly in 2015 that he was moved to the bullpen Friday.
In November of 2012, the Nationals dealt pitching prospect Alex Meyer to Minnesota for Denard Span. Meyer was a rising star in the Twins organization prior to this season, but he's struggled so badly in 2015 that he was moved to the bullpen Friday.
Brian Blanco/Getty Images

In November of 2012, the Washington Nationals traded top prospect Alex Meyer to the Minnesota Twins for Denard Span.  It was a deal that made a lot of sense for both teams at the time.  The Nationals were coming off of a 98 win season that saw them finish with the best record in baseball, but they lacked a true big league center fielder and a traditional leadoff man.  Minnesota was coming off of a 66 win season that saw them finish with the worst record in the American League and didn't have a lot of potential impact starters in the high minors.  It was a textbook win-win trade.

The move has certainly worked for the Nationals.  Since being acquired, Span has hit .292/.342/.405 for the Nats while providing an above average glove in center field.  He's also led the team with 54 stolen bases and ranks fourth on the Nats since the start of 2013 with 8.3 fWAR and 6.8 rWAR.  Span has been exactly what the Nats were looking for when they acquired him.  Heck, they even went out and replaced Alex Meyer with A.J. Cole and Blake Treinen in the Michael Morse trade later that winter.

The Twins return in the trade hasn't worked out nearly as well so far.  They certainly weren't expecting Meyer to slot into their rotation right away.  Still, they hoped that he might get a cup of coffee in 2014 and have a shot at making a real impact on the big league club this season.  Unfortunately, he's yet to reach the major leagues.  He was also moved to the bullpen at AAA Rochester on Friday.  The Twins plan is for this to be a temporary move, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will be.

Since Span is a known asset for the Nats, let's see what we can dig up on Alex Meyer...

What we heard about Meyer when the Nats drafted him in 2011

Let's take a look at what Minor League Ball's John Sickels had to say about Meyer on his draft tracker at the time....

23. Washington Nationals: Alex Meyer (RHP, University of Kentucky)

The Nationals had been linked to Meyer for weeks, but it was too soon to pick him at sixth-overall. Instead they get their man at 23rd. A dominating presence on the mound at 6-9, 220, Meyer posted a 7-5 record with a 2.94 ERA and a 110/46 K/BB in 101 innings. He touches 100 MPH on his best days and works consistently in the mid-90s, mixing in a good slider and workable changeup. 

Meyer still has command issues at times and doesn't always repeat his mechanics consistently, but his ceiling is one of the best in the draft. He's matured emotionally and how has a strong mound presence. Ideally he would develop into a number two starter, although if command is a long-term problem he could end up in a bullpen role. It is unusual to find an arm with this kind of upside with the 23rd pick in the draft, testimony to how deep this class truly is.

I remember hearing a few similar reports on Meyer from draft pundits that season.  He's always had big upside and an ideal pitcher's frame.  He has a big fastball and has the potential to have three plus pitches.  However, I do recall seeing that his struggles to repeat his delivery and shaky command had a few people thinking that he may profile better as a reliever long-term.  Even if he ends up becoming a shutdown reliever at the back of a bullpen, that's certainly not what Minnesota was hoping to get when they traded Span for him.... they were after a potential front-line starter.

2013

In Meyer's first season in the Twins organization, he was limited to thirteen starts in AA ball because of shoulder soreness.  Meyer did end up making three more starts in Rookie League and also pitched in the Arizona Fall League that season, but this may have slowed his development a bit.  When healthy, Meyer looked fine.  He finished the year with a 3.21 ERA (2.85 FIP) and an 84:29 strikeout to walk ratio in 70 innings at New Britain.  His walk rate was up a bit from his 2012 campaign in the Nats' organization, but it was still an acceptable 3.73 in AA.

2014

Despite the missed time due to injury, Meyer shot up the prospect ranks in the 2013-14 offseason.  Baseball America (59 in 2013), Baseball Prospectus (88), and MLB.com (83) all bumped him into their Top 50 prior to last season as he made the jump from AA to AAA.  Overall, Meyer had a pretty solid year at Rochester, finishing with a 3.52 ERA (3.66 FIP) and 153 strikeouts in 130.1 innings in his first crack at AAA.  Unfortunately, that walk rate was on the rise again.... Meyer's walk rate jumped from 3.73 in 2013 to 4.42 in 2014.  I can't find any batted ball data or a strikezone plot for any of his games as they were all in the minors.  Still, if Meyer was struggling with his control, it's reasonable to expect that he might have had a little more trouble locating when he was in the zone as well.

2015

Meyer's walk rate is on the rise again, which is one of the main reasons for his move to the bullpen.  Meyer has a ridiculously high 5.49 BB/9 rate in his first eight starts this season.  The rising walk rate (along with an insane .419 BABIP) finally seems to be catching up with him this season.  He's averaging less than five innings per start and has a 7.09 ERA on the year.  He's still striking out more than a batter an inning, but he's certainly not looking like he's on the verge of a promotion.  Already 25 years old and with a full (solid) season at AAA under his belt, Meyer is supposed to be on the verge of cracking the big league rotation at this point, right?

Nats fans perspective

I do recall some Nats fans being a little concerned about losing Meyer in the deal for Span, both at the time of the deal and in the years since.  The fact of the matter is that the Nats have gotten two and a half good, cheap, controllable years out of a big league quality asset for a strong but volatile minor league asset.  I'm not going to bust out the crystal ball and say what will end up happening to Meyer, but I think there are a few different possible scenarios.....

  1. The move to the bullpen gets him back on track and he returns to the rotation in a month or so, having grown from the experience.  He turns into a nice middle of the rotation guy that the Twins will have control of for six more years
  2. The move to the bullpen gets him back on track, but he feels more comfortable out there and never returns to starting.  This accelerates his development and he joins the Twins bullpen later this season, possibly replacing Glen Perkins as their bullpen ace within the next couple of years
  3. The move to the bullpen actually hurts his confidence and he never recovers, fading from a once great prospect to a guy who maybe hangs on for a while and catches lightning in a bottle for a year or two at some point

Sure... I ignored the middle ground.  It doesn't really matter to the Nats.  Even if everything clicks, the likelihood at this point is that the Nats will have gotten three good reasonably priced years out of Span before Meyer even gets a chance to make any type of impact at the big league level.  Considering this deal was made when the Nats had a window to contend, this was a terrific deal for the Nats.

As for Alex Meyer and the Twins, I do wish them well.  I'd like to see Meyer improve his mechanics and command and become a really good starter for them over the next few seasons.  Despite the rising walk rates, he was developing into a nice young starter and was strong in his first two seasons with their organization.  He can turn it around.

Don't revel about Meyer's move to the bullpen making the deal look like it was more heavily in the Nats favor.  The Nats return on the deal has been quite good.  It was a win-win deal at the time... let's hope it ends up that way.