COMMENTARY | The trade for Denard Span was far from an earth-shattering, offseason blockbuster. Even for the Washington Nationals and their fans -- coming off of a division title and for the very first time getting to have hot-stove discussions about piecing together a championship-caliber roster -- it hasn't caused much of a stir.
But the quiet acquisition of the Minnesota Twins center fielder may very well prove to be the perfect move for the Nats -- one that could provide the exact piece of the puzzle needed to get this upstart team to the next level.
The addition of Span is reminiscent of last year's December trade for pitcher Gio Gonzalez -- an under-the-radar move that was met with only modest appreciation. Nats fans -- having never experienced a single season with a winning record -- could be excused for thinking, "He can't be that good if we got him." But Gonzalez had stellar numbers, obscured by playing in a relatively small Oakland market for mediocre teams. And he filled a key need: a front-of-the-rotation starter who could take some of the pressure off of a young but promising pitching staff.
We know now that the plan worked to absolute perfection, as Gonzalez registered 21 wins, 207 Ks, a 2.89 ERA, and a third-place finish in the National League Cy Young Award race. Looking back on the Nats' surprising, ahead-of-schedule run to the NL East title, the acquisition of Gonzalez looks brilliant.
One year later, along comes an offseason trade for Denard Span in return for a minor-league pitcher. Span amassed impressive numbers, obscured by playing in a relatively small Minneapolis market for mediocre teams. He's a former first-round pick of the Twins with five years of major-league experience. He's a .284 career hitter, scores runs, steals bases, and is a highly regarded fielder in center.
The comparison to Gonzalez isn't perfect, as Span's numbers aren't as eye-popping as the pitcher's were in Oakland. But Span fills a gaping hole for the Nationals, in the outfield and in the lineup.
Center field has always been a problem for the Nats. Up until last season, there weren't many highlights at all for the team since its 2005 arrival in Washington and while there have been plenty of culprits, a recurring theme has been the lack of a center fielder and leadoff hitter.
Maybe it's not a coincidence that in the breakthrough season of 2012, teenage-phenom and converted-catcher Bryce Harper spent more time in CF than any other position as he bounced around the outfield to stay in the lineup. Span only needs to fill the position better than Nyjer Morgan to earn the title as best full-time center fielder in Washington Nationals history.
And just as significantly, the addition of Span sets in motion a series of moves that will fall like dominos, and they make the Nats look potentially even more formidable in 2013. The addition of Span allows Harper to settle into LF, allows slugger Mike Morse to take over at 1B -- assuming that Adam LaRoche moves on -- and allows Jayson Werth to abandon his curious stint as leadoff hitter and move his bat back toward the middle of the lineup.
In other words, Span doesn't need an MVP-type season to make the Nats a serious championship contender next year. Not every offseason move pays off, and a baseball season's storyline invariably has twists and turns that can play out in endless ways. But add a legitimate center fielder and leadoff hitter to the defending division champs? This may have been a much bigger move than you would gather from the muted reaction.
We'll know a year from now -- if the Nats are having another postseason celebration.
KW Rosenfeld visited every major league ballpark in the summer of 1991. A longtime resident of Northern Virginia, he's still thankful that baseball has returned to D.C.