Why Didn’t The Rays Pursue A Denard Span Trade More Enthusiastically?
By Robbie Knopf
A significant trade over the past few days was that the Washington Nationals acquired centerfielder Denard Span from the Minnesota Twins in exchange for right-handed pitching prospect Alex Meyer. In the wake of that trade, should the Rays have offered the Twins more for Span?
Span, who will turn 29 in February, is a Tampa native coming off a solid season at the plate for the Twins, posting a .283/.342/.395 line (105 OPS+) with 38 doubles, 4 triples, 4 homers, 41 RBI, 17 of 23 stolen bases, and 62 strikeouts against 47 walks in 128 games and 568 plate appearances. Offensively, Span is a slightly above-average player, possessing little power but showing good pure hitting ability, great speed, and good plate discipline. But defensively, he really shines. Span has a 13.6 UZR (4.6 UZR/150) in nearly 4000 innings in centerfield, and since struggling in centerfield the first two years of his career, Span has been worth a ridiculous 22 UZR there the past three years and his 9.2 UZR/150 ranks third among MLB centerfielder minimum 3000 innings. Span’s arm is below-average, but the range factor of his UZR is 11.6 per 150 games, tops among centerfielders minimum 3000 innings. Span’s defense is undeniable elite, and combining his defense with his solid offense makes him an above-average all-around centerfielder. The Rays need to fill the hole in their lineup left by B.J. Upton as much as they need to fill the gap he leaves in their defense, but Span could have allowed them to move on next season without Upton while not losing too much and Span will also make just 11.25 million dollars combined over the next two seasons with a team option worth 9 million dollars for 2015. Isn’t he a player that would be a perfect trade target for the Rays?
In return for Span, the Twins received Alex Meyer, who was the 23rd overall pick by the Nationals in 2011 MLB Draft. Meyer had a nice season in 2012 as he worked his way up from Low-A Hagerstown to High-A Potomac, going 10-6 with a 2.86 ERA, a 9.7 K/9, a 3.1 BB/9, and a 0.4 HR/9 in 25 starts and 129 innings pitched. According to Minor League Central, Span’s groundball rate was 48.7% between the two levels. Meyer is a big 6’9″, 220 right-hander who flashes overpowering stuff but he struggled to repeat his delivery as is the case with many pitchers as tall as him, with Jeff Niemann being the example Rays fans are familiar with. Meyer’s fastball touches as high as 97 MPH, staying comfortably in the 93-95 MPH range, but how it moves is a whole other story. When he’s right, Meyer can get a great downward plane on his pitches, but his arm slot is inconsistent and his fastball moves in a variety of ways. When Meyer gets a higher three-quarters angle on his delivery, his fastball features heavy sink and run away from right-handed batters, while when it lowers a bit more, it shows natural late cutting action. Meyer gets into big trouble when he gets under the ball and leaves his fastball up in the zone. Bottom line, Meyer’s fastball often features great movement, but he can’t consistently control where it’s going to go.
Meyer’s best secondary pitch is a high-80’s slider that features devastating late break when Meyer can get on top of it, but at other times it gets slurvy and he leaves it up in the zone. Meyer struggles to throw his slider for called strikes at this point, relying it mostly as a swing-and-miss offering down in the zone. At its best, Meyer’s slider is a weapon versus hitters from both sides and forces hitters to keep it in their back of their minds even as he attacks them with electric fastball. He finishes off his arsenal with a high-80’s changeup that features good late sink and could be a strong third pitch for him moving forward, especially against left-handed batters. Meyer has a chance to profile as a true ace if he can figure out a way to repeat his delivery to help him command his three-pitch arsenal, but at 6’9″, it’s anybody’s guess whether that will ever happen. He’s an excellent pitching prospect but one with plenty of risk. He could end up as anything from a frontline starter to a closer to an enigmatic mid-rotation starter like Niemann to a middle reliever who can’t throw strikes.
The Twins traded a good player in Span and in return got a pitcher that hasn’t even appeared in Double-A yet. There’s a chance that Meyer blossoms into an ace and the Twins will look like geniuses for this trade in three or four years, but couldn’t they have gotten more for Span?
Watching Span get traded for such a risky prospect, Rays fans have to wonder why the Rays didn’t get more involved in the talks for him. The Rays could have offered them a pitcher like Chris Archer who is big league ready and has a chance to be a number two starter in the big leagues within the next couple of years or they could have traded one of their more experienced starters like James Shields or Jeremy Hellickson as part of a larger deal. But the Rays holding onto their starters tell you how highly they regard them and that they’re not going to trade players with outstanding ability just to fill needs. Span is a good player, but he has managed just a 95 OPS+ the last three years and if the Rays want great defensive value in the outfield, they could give Sam Fuld a starting job and pay him a fraction of what Span will make next season. At the end of the day, the Rays aren’t going to go out on a limb and trade a promising pitcher just to receive a moderate upgrade as a position of weakness. The Rays have enough pitching depth to allow them to consider trading a starter. However, they’re only going to carry out such a trade if they can receive maximum value in return, and getting into a bidding war with another team for the services of a player they don’t even regard so highly is far from that.