November 30, 2012

Twins trade Denard Span to Nationals for pitching prospect Alex Meyer

Reports of the Nationals trying to get Denard Span from the Twins started in mid-2011. Back then the rumored deal involved one of Washington's late-inning relievers, either Drew Storen or Tyler Clippard, coming to Minnesota. When it ultimately never happened speculation about the reasons why included Span's post-concussion health status and the Twins' request for a mid-level prospect also being part of their haul.

Seventeen months later the two sides agreed to a trade that sends Span to Washington in exchange for 22-year-old prospect Alex Meyer, a 6-foot-9 right-hander the Nationals picked out of the University of Kentucky in the first round of the 2011 draft right around the time rumors of their interest in Span began swirling. Meyer was the 23rd overall pick, seven spots ahead of where the Twins selected University of North Carolina infielder Levi Michael.

Meyer signed for $2 million and made his pro debut this year at low Single-A, moving up to high Single-A in the second half. Overall between the two levels he threw 129 innings with a 2.86 ERA and 139-to-45 strikeout-to-walk ratio, holding opponents to a .211 batting average and just six homers while inducing 52 percent ground balls. Debuting with such strong numbers is particularly encouraging because Meyer's raw stuff has never been in question.

Meyer works in the mid-90s with his fastball, topping out close to triple-digits, and Baseball America's season review of the South Atlantic League's top prospects praised his "wipeout slider in the mid-80s" and noted that his changeup "could become an average third pitch." Most prospect lists aren't published yet, but Baseball America staffers I talked to are confident he'll be in their top 75 and the one prominent list that's out, MLB.com, rated him No. 50 overall.

Keith Law of ESPN describes Meyer as a "potential frontline starter," writing that "his slider is filthy, a bona fide out pitch" and "his changeup has improved to the point where it's probably a future-average pitch." Law's annual prospect list isn't out yet, but he was kind enough to give me a sneak peak and said Meyer figures to be in the 50-75 range. Law also told me Meyer is in the class of the college arms the Twins passed on with the No. 2 pick to take Byron Buxton.

Ideally if the Twins were trading Span for pitching help it would have been for an established big leaguer or at least an MLB-ready prospect, but they were never going to get someone like James Shields for Span without including significantly more value in the deal and MLB-ready pitching prospects with big-time upside are rarely available in trades for non-stars. To acquire a pitcher with top-of-the-rotation upside for Span you likely also have to acquire uncertainty.

Meyer is a huge, hard-throwing pitcher 18 months removed from being a consensus top-20 player in a very deep draft class and performed well in his debut, striking out 139 batters in 129 innings with better than anticipated control. Simply by virtue of being a 22-year-old pitching prospect he's nowhere near a sure thing, but if the Twins' plan was to turn Span into high-upside young pitching they accomplished that about as well as could be expected.

Whether that plan was the right one is another issue, of course. Once upon a time Span was a first-round pick himself, going 20th overall in 2002 out of high school. As he climbed the minor-league ladder his upside began to deteriorate and after hitting .267/.323/.355 at Triple-A in 2007 he looked more likely to be a fourth outfielder than a quality regular. That all changed the next season, as Span hit .340 at Triple-A before a fantastic rookie showing with the Twins.

He hit .294/.387/.432 in 93 games as a rookie and followed that up by hitting .311/.392/.415 in 145 games in 2009. His production dropped off in 2010, as Span hit .264/.331/.348 in 153 games, and his strong start in 2011 was ruined by a concussion that sidelined him for most of four months and left him extremely ineffective when he tried to play. Span entered this year as a huge question mark, but responded with a productive, mostly healthy season.

In all Span hit .284 with a .357 on-base percentage and .389 slugging percentage in 589 games for the Twins, emerging as a prototypical leadoff man with patience, strike zone control, and speed. Among all center fielders with at least 1,500 plate appearances from 2008-2012 only Andrew McCutchen, Josh Hamilton, and Dexter Fowler had a higher on-base percentage than Span and his defensive numbers were consistently well above average.

Span is far from perfect--he lacks power and arm strength, and misleadingly good stolen base totals hide that he's regularly among the MLB leaders in being picked off--but players at up-the-middle positions with .357 on-base percentages and above-average defense are very difficult to find. And, as was usually the case with Span, those players tend to be underrated by people focusing on offense over defense and production without positional context.

He's also 28 years old and under team control for three more seasons at a total cost of $20 million, so in addition to being one of the better all-around center fielders he's one of the biggest bargains. Of course, that's all part of what made Span one of the Twins' few desirable trade pieces and perhaps their most desirable. He's the type of player teams build around, but unfortunately in the Twins' situation he's also the type of player needed to facilitate a rebuild.

Outfield depth throughout the organization made it easier to trade Span, as the Twins have Ben Revere ready to step in as the everyday center fielder, Chris Parmelee ready for a shot somewhere, and prospects like Aaron Hicks, Oswaldo Arcia, Joe Benson, and Eddie Rosario waiting in the wings. There's reason to be skeptical of Revere's bat and Parmelee's glove, but the Twins dealt from an area of strength to address a massive weakness.

I'd much rather have traded Justin Morneau or Josh Willingham or even Revere, but none of those players would have been in as much demand as Span and if the Twins' goal was to swap him for a young, high-upside starting pitcher they accomplished it. Meyer immediately becomes the Twins' top pitching prospect, which admittedly isn't saying much, but he's also one of the 30 or so best pitching prospects in baseball.

A lot can go wrong here if Revere fails to develop better on-base skills and/or Meyer fails to develop, period. And the only reason trading Span makes any sense to begin with is that the Twins are so lacking in pitching talent and so shaky in general coming off 195 losses in two seasons, but there's no magic wand that can be waved to make those problems vanish. They dug themselves this hole and Span-for-Meyer is a reasonable step on their climb out of it.

  • Scott

    Is Meyer’s age relative to where he played after the draft a concern?

  • Craig

    On point as usual. The Nats lineup is looking pretty good going Span, Werth, Zimmerman, Harper, Morse or LaRoche

  • http://jszym2write@yahoo.com jfs

    thumbs down on this trade. span has considerable value. he’s only 28, under team control for 3 years, plays great defense, and has solid plate discipline. perhaps most important, he wanted to be here.

    our return, meyer, has an impressive ceiling. but so much can happen with a pitcher’s arm. while he’s projected to be a solid starter, there’s no guarantee.

    oh well, at least the twins didn’t get fleeced with another ramos/capps deal with the nationals.

  • TokerAce

    Now we just have to wait for Meyer’s inevitable Tommy John surgery.

  • Spoofbonser

    People shouldn’t forget about the fragile nature of head injuries and Span’s recent struggles with one. He is no sure thing and I would argue that his replacement (good glove OBP machine) is in the wing: Aaron Hicks

  • Sam

    Hopefully this is just the start. Sell off everything of value, get rid of gardy, and start printing those 2016 pennants.

  • JimmyMax

    Span’s OBP last three years: .328, .331, .342. Ben Revere might be able to do that, and will be better on the bases and probably as good in the field.
    Throw in Span’s durability questions, and I’m perfectly happy with this trade. It’s a risk since prospects are no sure thing, but Span was expendable, so it’s a risk worth taking.

  • Josh

    I think part of the reaosn to be ok with this deal is the idea of dealing from a position of strength. Revere’s best position is CF, where he’s an elite fielder and his poor arm probably hurts the team the least. For him to really replace Span at the top of the lineup, he needs to get his OBP up, but he at least has the potential to do that. Is there risk? Of course, but it’s not an unreasonable one.

    regarding Meyers, he’s definitely the kind of pitcher you like to see the Twins targeting. High K’s, great velocity, at least one plus off-speed pitch…this is what’s been missing. Will he be a starter next year? unlikely. I expect him to start at AA and hopefully advance to AA by the end of the season. Target him for 2014. Wish it could be a year earlier, but that’s not bad, thinking about Meyers, Gibson, and Diamond as the foundation for a 2014 rotation.

    Not a bad deal. Not one I can immediately say the Twins won. Would have loved for there have been an A-ball prospect thrown in for the Twins, because Terry Ryan has been great at finding those guys. But this could be a great move.

  • chris

    will he last until july befor needing the twins tommy john special?

  • AM.

    Love this trade. Ton of sense for their long-term plans. Plus I live in DC and will get to watch Denard (and Ramos) win a championship this year.

  • wrong em

    Great analysis.

  • RSS

    You moved Rosario back to the outfield? I thought he was a second-baseman now.

    I little disappointed Span was only worth one prospect, but maybe Twins fans have been over-valuing him a little bit, like we over-valued Liriano.

  • anon

    JimmyMax is right. Span only had the one year where he was elite in OBP. He’s a good player, just not as good as some Twins fans think. This was the best they could do for him, especially with this offseason being a buyer’s market for CF.

    Parmalee plays RF this year, then when they let Morneau walk after ’13, he moves to first and Hicks is in right.

  • AM.

    Would have love to get Lombardozzi included in this trade.

  • CoachFSCB

    I hate to see Span go, but it was necessary. The Twins have lost 90+ games the past two years and (sad to say) probably will again in 2013. Currently, the Twins top prospects are primarily position players, not pitchers, and they need to start adding arms like Meyer’s if they want to try and contend again in 2015 or 2016. Guys with a fastball near triple digits, a filthy wipeout slider, and a developing change-up that will soon be an out pitch are nice to have and it looks as if the Twins have just acquired one. I’m sure many Twins fans would have wanted the team to get back an already-established major league pitcher for Span to give them some immediate help on the mound in 2013, but realistically 2013 is a lost cause and this move might help the Twins contend two or three years from now. That should be Terry Ryan’s focus, and with this trade, I think it shows that it is.

  • pk

    Worst Case: Meyer’s gets hurt and doesn’t pitch an inning in Twins uniform.

    Most Likely: Meyer’s becomes a middle of road starter wins 10 – 12 games a year ie Scott Baker or is a young Latroy Hawkins and goes between starter and late inning reliever.

    Best Case: He becomes the #1 this organization has lacked since Santana and leads a staff of Gibson and Diamond.

  • jfs

    throwing in the towel on 2013? no.

    if ryan can net a few decent, free-agent pitchers, this team can contend. guys who know how to pitch. just a few reliable arms.

  • BR

    Agree with AG’s analysis. A solid move toward rebuilding, getting the type of prospect they sorely lack by dealing from a position of depth. I loved D-Span, but this is the kind of move a 69-win team has to make. Also encouraging that they targeted a guy who can bring it rather than a control artist. There’s hope here, people.

    One quibble: I think they probably could have obtained a guy like Shields for Span. (I wonder which of the Atlanta pitchers they were targeting?) But it’s highly likely that Ryan was looking for a younger guy they’d control for 6 years, rather than an established starter under control for 2 years, who’d be gone by the time the team was really ready to contend again.

  • thegeneral13

    jfs, this team can’t contend. It will have one of the bottom 5 rotations in baseball, a weak bullpen, and an average at best offense. Oh, and negligible depth to buffer against injuries. This franchise should be building for 2015+ when the only noteworthy prospects in the system start contributing at the major league level, and this trade fits perfectly with that approach.

  • Brian

    Go to this website:

    http://www.baseballamerica.com/today/prospects/rankings/top-100-prospects/all-time.html

    pick a year at random (prior to 2005 so there’s a track record), and go through the 40-80 range that Alex Meyer is allegedly in. You won’t recognize 60% of the pitcher names. Now there’s some Wainwrights and Hamels out there too, but those guys make up about 5-10%.

  • thegeneral13

    That’s just the nature of prospects. Most of the players contribute nothing, but those who do contribute enough value that the cohort itself is very valuable. You say only 5-10% are the Wainwrights and Hamels’s, but 6 years of a cost-controlled Hamels has many, many times the economic value of Span (even with Span under a team friendly contract). Put it this way – would you buy a $1 lotto ticket if you had a 10% chance of winning $100 and a 90% chance of winning nothing? You should, even though there’s a 90% chance you’d walk away with nothing and regret “wasting” your dollar.

  • thedaimajin

    What 2012 stats are you using Aaron? All the websites list Span’s 2012 OBP as .342 not .357. Twins definitely dealt from an area of strength, would have liked to get a closer mlb ready player though.

  • Brian

    I get the math, but Span isn’t a $1 lotto ticket. If Hamels is the $100, the chances are probably more like 3-5%, and Span (and his 50 cents on the dollar contract) is more like $10 cash.

    Not that Span is guaranteed to get his projected 10 wins above replacement over the next 3 years, but I’d take a projected 10 WAR at $20M over the lotto ticket that is a non-elite pitching prospect.

    Hamels was paid $22M in his cost controlled years, and contributed about 23 WAR. Clearly a good deal. that’s 15-20 more WAR than they would have otherwise probably have gotten with that $22M. But again… this is a 1-in-20 scenario. For every Cole Hamels, there’s 10 Adam Johnsons.

    And I know it’s not Hamels or bust. There’s guys like Gavin Floyd, too.

    I get the Twins situation (having Revere, and not really having a team that can contend next year), but I still think the trade favors the Nats in a bubble.

  • Brian

    0.357 is a career OBP

  • thegeneral13

    I generally agree with that, Brian. A healthy Span is likely to create more excess value during his current contract than the average of 100 Meyers would while under Twins control. But that’s if Span’s healthy, and if he didn’t have a serious brain injury history the Twins would have gotten more. If you pretend that risk doesn’t exist, I agree the Nats won this trade in a bubble. However, the combination of that major health risk and the fact that the Twins won’t be in position to take advantage of Span outplaying his contract until it’s expired anyway makes this a good trade for the Twins.

  • Brian

    The Twins have a better chance of winning the World Series in the next 10 years doing this trade than keeping Span. I’d agree with that. I just think they should have been able to do better. It’s odd to me that BJ Upton gets $75M over 5 years, but Span, who is signed for $11M over 2 years with an option to make it $20M over 3 years only fetches a single prospect outside the top 20 prospects. I know Upton hits 20-30 HRs, but he also hits .240 with a lower OBP than Span, and Span is probably the better defender.

  • thegeneral13

    I think it’s a combination of Upton’s greater upside and Span’s greater catastrophic injury risk. But yeah, it’s a nice pick up for the Nats relative to the free agent options that are available. As for Meyer, though he is “just” a top 50-75 prospect, those lists are pretty fluid, and if the Twins can harness his control and refine his changeup he could very well be a top 20 prospect this time next year. Those things aren’t givens, but the point is he has the raw ability to move a lot higher. He also sucked until his senior year in college and I think that weighs him down in the rankings, such that he could move quickly up lists simply by continuing to perform this year.

  • Deduno Abides

    Below are the BA 2006 Top Prospects #s 40-80 that are pitchers are below. 24 total. More than 40% of the names are recognizable. 5 of them (Sanchez, Weaver, Hamels, Gonzalez, Johnson) have had high upsides. There are also other successful major leaguers, such as Volquez, Danks, Broxton, Niemann, Hammel. This isn’t a guarantee, but the list shows more optimism for an upside than some of the doubters have stated.

    40. Anibal Sanchez, rhp, Marlins
    41. Anthony Reyes, rhp, Cardinals
    44. Mark Rogers, rhp, Brewers
    45. Adam Loewen, lhp, Orioles
    47. Adam Miller, rhp, Indians
    48. Dustin McGowan, rhp, Blue Jays
    52. Jason Hirsh, rhp, Astros
    53. Jeremy Sowers, lhp, Indians
    54. Craig Hansen, rhp, Red Sox
    55. Scott Elbert, lhp, Dodgers
    56. Edison Volquez, rhp, Rangers
    57. Jered Weaver, rhp, Angels
    59. John Danks, lhp, Rangers
    62. Troy Patton, lhp, Astros
    63. Jonathan Broxton, rhp, Dodgers
    67. Dustin Nippert, rhp, Diamondbacks
    68. Cole Hamels, lhp, Phillies
    69. Yusmeiro Petit, rhp, Marlins
    70. Jeff Niemann, rhp, Devil Rays
    72. Thomas Diamond, rhp, Rangers
    73. Gio Gonzalez, lhp, Phillies
    79. Jason Hammel, rhp, Devil Rays
    80. Josh Johnson, rhp, Marlins

    Side note – could probably make a pretty good team with the #s 40-80 prospects that were non-pitchers (Matt Moses excepted, of course). Does Kubel even make the starting line-up?

    42. Russell Martin, c, Dodgers
    43. Neil Walker, c, Pirates
    46. Erick Aybar, ss, Angels
    49. Ryan Braun, 3b, Brewers
    50. Andrew McCutchen, of, Pirates
    51. Brian Anderson, of, White Sox
    58. Jason Kubel, of, Twins
    60. Jeff Mathis, c, Angels
    61. Elvis Andrus, ss, Braves
    64. Adam Jones, of/ss, Mariners
    65. Marcus Sanders, ss/2b, Giants
    66. Kenji Johjima, c, Mariners
    71. Brad Snyder, of, Indians
    74. Javier Herrera, of, Athletics
    75. Matt Moses, 3b, Twins
    76. Jay Bruce, of, Reds
    77. Dustin Pedroia, 2b/ss, Red Sox
    78. Kendry Morales, 1b, Angels

  • Large Canine

    The Twins will pay 4.2575 mil less in CF playing Revere over Span. (Span 4.75 mil/Revere $492,500) The savings can (and looks like will) be used on pitching. We lose very little replacing Span with Revere and now our BA looks better with Parmalee as the everyday RF. Overall OF defense will probably suffer a bit but we need runs and pitching. Good trade overall.