The Nationals acquired center fielder Denard Span in a trade Thursday with the Minnesota Twins, patching a hole in the starting lineup that has been an issue since the organization moved to the District from Montreal in 2005.
Span, 28, is a highly regarded defensive player. He has limited power but had a .342 on-base percentage last season and is considered a true leadoff hitter from the left side of the plate.
That is a skill set Washington has lacked. The Nats did play rookie Bryce Harper in center field last year, and while he took to the position nicely, the club ideally would have him at a corner outfield spot. Jayson Werth returned from a broken wrist in August and out of necessity had to bat leadoff. He, too, excelled in that spot, but general manager Mike Rizzo would like Werth to bat lower in the lineup to take advantage of his power in run-scoring situations.
Rizzo confirmed that Washington was in the trade market for Span two summers ago, but the two teams couldn't agree on the players headed back to Minnesota. This time they did. The Nats parted with minor league pitcher Alex Meyer, one of two first-round draft picks for the team in 2011.
"A year and a half ago I definitely don't think I was ready for [a trade to Washington] then," Span said. "Fast forward to now and I'm definitely ready for it, to come to a team that already is in place to win. I just hope that I can come here and fit in and not get in the way."
Meyer was considered the organization's top pitching prospect. He was chosen 23rd overall in 2011 and has risen quickly through the minor league system, finishing last season at Single-A Potomac. He is a 6-foot-9 power pitcher whom the team believed could become a dominant starting pitcher. But at his size, mechanics are always a work-in-progress, and that could limit him to relief duty instead.
Span, meanwhile, batted .283 in 2012 for the Twins with 38 doubles. He is a contact hitter who struck out in just 10.9 percent of his plate appearances last season, 14th best in the majors. He also stole 17 bases in 23 attempts and led all qualified big league center fielders in range factor per nine innings (2.89).
The risks? Health is the biggest. Span played in just 70 games in 2011 because of lingering symptoms from a concussion he suffered on July 8 of that year. In 2009, Span battled symptoms related to vertigo. But he managed to play 128 games in 2012 and was productive, easing concerns on Washington's part.
The trade does present some roster issues. With Harper moving to a corner outfield spot -- Rizzo said he isn't sure which one yet -- left fielder Michael Morse must move to the infield or be traded. And yet the club is still in talks to bring back free agent first baseman Adam LaRoche, its best hitter in 2012.
"Michael Morse is under contract with us. He's a guy that's been a productive player for us," Rizzo said. "LaRoche was our first baseman last year, and we're still discussing things with him and in contract negotiations with him. So it gives us some options in dealing with our roster."