Another day, another NL East team solves their center field problem. Yesterday, the Braves spent $75 million to sign B.J. Upton to a contract that is perfectly fair and should provide them with a quality player going forward. Today, the Nationals spent $21 million — and, to be fair, a solid pitching prospect — and got a similarly valuable player in Denard Span. Advantage, Nationals.
Similarly valuable doesn’t mean similar, of course. The similarities between Span and Upton pretty much end after you note that they’re both athletic center fielders. Upton derives a lot of value from hitting for power, while Span has hit nine home runs in the last three years combined. Span derives most of his value from making contact and running, using his speed to help him get on base, score runs, and save them in the outfield. And yet, at the end of the day, they end up with results that are about equally effective at winning games.
For his career, Upton has a 107 wRC+ while Span checks in at 105. Interestingly, both players produced a wRC+ in 2012 that was an exact match for their own career average. Span struggled a bit the previous couple of years — and his issues were compounded with a mid-summer concussion that ended up costing him about half of the 2011 — but he rebounded nicely last year and showed some of the production that made him such a dynamic player earlier in his career.
It’s unlikely that Span posts the 120 wRC+ from his first couple of years in the big leagues, but he’s fast enough and hits enough ground balls that that an above average BABIP should probably be expected. His .320 career mark is probably not far off his true talent level, but one year spikes up to .340 or .350 shouldn’t be unexpected, and Span could be a legitimate offensive force in years where the ball finds the hole more often than others. Having a skillset that averages out to Shane Victorino and peaks as Carl Crawford makes Span a pretty nifty player, and one who is instantly a big upgrade for the Nationals.
For his career, Span has averaged +3.6 WAR per 600 plate appearances. Even if you regress his defense a bit because he’ll turn 29 during spring training, Span looks like a good bet to be +3 win player next year, making him a dramatic upgrade over Mike Morse. With Span being flanked by Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper in the outfield, the Nationals are going to boast of the rangiest outfields in the sport, and now the team has the option of shifting Morse to first base or trading him if they end up re-signing Adam LaRoche. Span is exactly the kind of player that the Nationals have been searching for, and is a perfect fit for their roster.
To be honest, I’m a bit surprised at the price at which Minnesota was willing to sell Span off. I get that they’re rebuilding and they feel like Ben Revere can handle center field in the short term, but Span is the kind of player they could have kept as they rebuilt. They had him under contract for his age 29-31 seasons at a grand total of $21 million, and only the first two years and $12 million was guaranteed. 3/21 for a +3 win player in his prime is a significant value, and the Twins sold him off for an A-ball pitching prospect who may end up in relief.
I don’t mean to downplay Meyer’s value as a prospect, as any 6’9 kid who throws in the upper 90s and throws a wipeout slider is a legitimately interesting return, but no one is yet certain that he’s going to stick in the rotation long term. He had a successful debut season between the South Atlantic and Carolina Leagues, but he was a 22-year-old college arm facing batters with significantly less experience. He’s yet to get to Double-A, and the questions about his mechanics haven’t yet been entirely answered. There’s some real upside here, but there’s also a chance that the command regresses and he ends up as a closer rather than a starter.
Meyer’s a bit of a lottery ticket. Legitimate upside, legitimate concerns about his future role, and at least another year of development before he’s ready to contribute in Minnesota. Meyer’s a Top 100 prospect, and if you think he’ll stick as a starter, probably a Top 50 guy. The Twins got a real talent back in return for Span, but it’s a talent with too many question marks to be the piece they’re getting back in return for a three win player under team control at a fraction of his market price.
For the Nationals, this is a huge win. Span represents a serious upgrade and doesn’t take away much of their 2013 budget, leaving them enough room to make another big move to further upgrade the roster. With their center field hole filled and only $5 million spent next year to do it, they have the flexibility to address other areas that could use improvement. If Meyer turns into an ace, they might regret this deal some day, but the odds of that are low enough that this was a risk worth taking. Especially given their proximity to a championship and Meyer’s timeline for helping the big league club.
For the Twins, they get a boom-or-bust prospect and lose one of their best players. They don’t really free up much salary to improve the roster already in place, so this is a clear win-later kind of move. Josh Willingham is clearly next on the chopping block, as the Twins are likely to make more moves to improve their future. Hopefully they get more back for him than they did for Span, though, because collecting lottery ticket pitching prospects isn’t a great way to rebuild.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.