Throughout this offseason, Mike Rizzo has been clear about wanting to acquire a centerfielder who can hit leadoff, whether through trade or free agency. There are a multitude of options for the team to consider, starting with the trade market.
A name often discussed as a trade option is the Rays’ B.J. Upton. The Nats have been rumored to have interest in Upton since this past trade deadline, and it makes some sense. Upton is becoming increasingly irrelevant in Tampa with the emergence of Desmond Jennings, and has repeatedly stated his desire to join childhood friend Ryan Zimmerman in Washington. However, there are reasons to be wary of Upton. His batting average has plummeted to .243 in 2011, in sharp contrast to his .300 average in 2007. While his slugging numbers have improved, a .243 average is less than ideal for a leadoff hitter. Also, the Rays would want a decent prospect haul for Upton, who only has one year remaining before he reaches free agency, and the Nationals may be unwilling to give up young, controllable talent for only one year of Upton. As such, the Nationals will likely look for a player who could be under team control for a longer period of time.
This brings to mind a player who was frequently linked to the Nationals as the trade deadline approached last year, and is under team control until 2015: Minnesota’s Denard Span. The Nationals were supposedly offering young closer Drew Storen, but refused to complete a deal when the Twins asked for minor league infielder Stephen Lombardozzi in addition. Span hit .264 in 2011, but only played in 70 games after suffering a concussion. While his average is 21 points better than Upton’s, it’s still not ideal. He is also no guarantee to stay healthy, and Minnesota’s new GM Terry Ryan is reportedly reluctant to trade Span (or Ben Revere), given that Minnesota could lose outfielders Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer in free agency this offseason. Span and Upton seem to be the top two trade options who could be available, but a trade is not the only way the Nationals could acquire a center fielder.
Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes has made headlines this offseason, as the highly touted 26-year-old is expected to be granted free agency this offseason. Cespedes dominated Cuban professional baseball and is widely considered to be one of the top prospects to come out of Cuba in a decade. He is a five-tool player, but only projects to bat around .270, which is not ideal, but still serviceable at leadoff, especially considering his base-stealing ability. He has a lot of power, which would also seem to suit him for another slot in the lineup, but does not preclude him from batting first. His defense at center is not stellar, but still good, though some forecast that he could move to a corner outfield spot soon. As any coveted free agent, Cespedes also comes with a high price tag, reported to be as much as $50 million over six years. Cespedes’ skill set may not be ideal for center field or for leadoff, but he is a unique talent and could fit into those spots easily. However, the Nationals’ quest for a center fielder could lead the team into internal options if they deem trade or free agent options unsatisfying.
Jayson Werth plays above-average defense in right field, and while he may be 32, there has been talk of moving him to center should an alternative not be found. He could likely handle himself defensively, but would not be winning any Gold Gloves. However, moving Werth to center leaves a gap in right, and given the Nationals’ lack of depth in that position, there is no obvious candidate to replace him. However, the Nationals could sign a free agent corner outfielder, such as ex-Nat Josh Willingham, to a short deal, and then hand the reins to Bryce Harper. Harper himself presents another intriguing choice. If he plays extremely well in spring training, could he force his way into the Opening Day lineup? In any event, the spot would be his soon, and any corner outfielder signed would be nothing more than a stopgap.
Any casual observer would agree that there is a hole in the Nationals’ outfield. Mike Rizzo has promised to acquire a leadoff hitting centerfielder, but there is no guarantee the Nats will receive a deal they find fair in a trade, or come to reasonable terms with a free agent. Regardless of the eventual solution, look for a different Nationals’ outfield on Opening Day 2012.