Jacoby Ellsbury and the Nats Sudden Centerfield Situation

 

In what many have called a disappointing 2013 for Denard Span he was still a 3.5 fWAR player. That may not mean much to the crowd that looks at his .279 batting average and considers that sub-par for a lead-off hitter, but there are a couple things at work with Denard Span. He didn't bat himself lead-off, he plays a premium defensive position, and plays defense at that position as good as anyone in the majors. Denard Span isn't a superstar but the Nats don't need him to be, and his presence on the 2013 Nats greatly improved the outfield defensively. If he had batted near the bottom of the order while someone having a better OBP season batted lead-off then perhaps the Nats end up with a better record, but that wouldn't have been enough.

Span was the new guy last season, and didn't have a great offensive year and this makes him an easy target of the casual observer. It sets up the rumors that follow that the Nats are willing to listen to offers for Span. Listening to offers and actively shopping a player are very different, but let's consider the Nationals back-up plan. The rumor that really started going was that they wanted to trade Span in order to sign Jacoby Ellsbury. That is a mistake. That is a Dan Snyder type move. Sign a name player who has rarely been healthy to a large contract in order to win the off-season, and with baseball's rules the Nationals wouldn't just be losing Span in this they would be losing a first round pick.     

Losing the pick isn't so much of an issue as who they would be losing it for. In six major league seasons not counting his call-up year Jacoby Ellsbury has averaged 113 games. He has twice played more than 150. With injuries having been one of the chief factors in the Nats disappointing 2013 signing another player that is a guarantee to miss time isn't wise, and beyond that the rumored contract for Ellsbury is one of those seven year $120 million jobs. That is not going to turn out well for a player entering his 30's who had trouble staying healthy in his 20's and whose main source of production is defense and speed. Ellsbury is going to decline and decline badly. Whoever signs him is going to have buyer’s remorse quicker than the Red Sox did with Carl Crawford.   

Another option if Span is moved is to call up Brian Goodwin. Goodwin has looked impressive but erratic in the Arizona Fall League. One game he has a solid offensive approach of waiting for his pitch and driving it and then in the next he is swinging at anything close and is a non-factor at the plate. Baseball is a game of inconsistency, but a solid confident approach helps, and while Goodwin is close he isn't quite there yet and could use a little more time in the minors this season. He could be ready mid-season and if that happens then the Nats can look to move Span to a contender in need of a centerfielder in order to call-up Goodwin. There is no reason to move Span now if Goodwin is the plan. Look what happened with the Braves and Jordan Schafer. Right now Goodwin is the player Schafer was when he was called up. Ready for the big leagues defensively but the bat still needs some seasoning.   

There are other options out there, but none of them have it making sense to move Span. The Nationals could trade for Matt Kemp or sign Curtis Granderson or Carlos Beltran and go to a four man outfield rotation with Span eventually becoming more of a fourth outfielder in 2014, but that involves the team keeping Span. Perhaps the thought is if they are going to lose a draft pick in signing a free agent outfielder they want to refill the farm system in some way and they see trading Span as the best choice in that regard. He was a 3.5 fWAR player in 2013 and if his offensive numbers regress to his mean in 2014 he will be even more productive. With no clear back-up plan the idea of trading Span is not a smart one. It is a panic move. It is the type of move the Washington football team would make, and it is the kind of move Mike Rizzo has avoided making his entire time as the GM of the Washington Nationals.   

Rizzo understands team building. He had issues in 2013 with replacing the parts that didn't work out in a timely manner (never), but when it comes to off-season team construction he has done that very well. He understands that a team isn't only superstars at the top and that a good solid team is built on the back of the middle and the bottom of the roster. Raising those parts up is the quickest and best way to more wins. Denard Span isn't going to excite the casual fan. He isn't going to be talked about on SportsCenter like Harper or Werth, but he is a solid contributor and an above average major league player, and the Nationals have him on the roster for one more season with a clear replacement in house in Brian Goodwin. It isn't often that prospect development and veteran contracts line up this well, but they do for the Nationals, and trading Span now and either rushing Goodwin to the majors or losing a draft pick to sign another outfielder isn't the right move for the Nationals. The right move in this case is patience.  

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