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Span trade has plenty of ramifications for Nats

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Span trade has plenty of ramifications for Nats

The Nationals have been searching for a leadoff hitter and center fielder since ... well, since before they were the Nationals.

This is a franchise that has tried in vain for eight seasons to develop or acquire someone who possessed both the ability to play center field and hit at the top of a big-league lineup.

First there was Endy Chavez. Then there was Brandon Watson. Then Nook Logan. Then Lastings Milledge. Then Nyjer Morgan. The list also included, at various times, Justin Maxwell, Marlon Byrd, Willie Harris, Preston Wilson, Ryan Langerhans, Ryan Church, Elijah Dukes, Roger Bernadina, Rick Ankiel and even a guy named Jorge Padilla who even the most knowledgeable Nationals fan would never remember existed.

All told, 32 different men have played center field for the Nationals since 2005 (tied with the Red Sox and Athletics for most in the majors).

So there was some real purpose behind yesterday's trade with the Twins for Denard Span. This wasn't simply an attempt by Mike Rizzo to shore up a small leak. This was an attempt by Rizzo to plug a hole that had existed for eight years.

Will Span be the guy who at long last produces in that vital role? There are no guarantees in life, but he certainly comes to Washington with a far better track record and body of work than any of those 32 previous center fielders.

This is a career .284 hitter with a .357 on-base percentage, spectacular range in center field -- only Michael Bourn rated better defensively last season -- and the ability to put bat on ball. Span struck out in a meager 10.7 percent of his plate appearances last season, well below the league average of 17.2 percent.

He even hits left-handers (.293) better than right-handers (.280) over his career, a rare skill for players of his ilk.

"I think he's going to bring a dimension to the club that we haven't had before," Rizzo said. "A fast-moving, exciting guy that makes contact and moves the ball around and can fly around the field. It gives us added speed, stolen base potential and a guy that can really run down balls, which will further help our pitching staff."

Was the price to acquire Span steep? Yes, it was. Alex Meyer is no slouch, a 6-foot-9 beast of a right-hander whose fastball approaches triple digits and who should be on a fast track to the big leagues after dominating both low- and high-Class A last season.

But the price to acquire Gio Gonzalez one year ago (four top prospects) was far steeper, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone complaining about that trade today.

What makes this particular deal all the more fascinating, though, is the domino effect it will have on so many other aspects of the Nationals, in 2013 and beyond.

Span's arrival will push Bryce Harper to one of the corner outfield positions; the hunch here is that he'll go to left field, with Jayson Werth wanting to remain in right field, though those two could wind up swapping spots somewhere down the road.

It also pushes Werth out of the leadoff spot and perhaps Harper out of the No. 2 spot in Davey Johnson's lineup.

All of that, of course, will depend on the name of the Nationals' first baseman in 2013. Will it be Adam LaRoche or Michael Morse? Only one can return.

The easy (and perhaps likeliest) scenario will have LaRoche signing with another club (perhaps the Red Sox, Orioles or Rangers) and Morse shifting to first base. And that may well happen.

But make no mistake, the Nationals still want to re-sign LaRoche, and would prefer to bring him back on a reasonable deal (two, though probably not three, guaranteed years) and then trade Morse (who will be a free agent next winter and most likely won't be re-signed regardless.

Think about this potential lineup should the Nats and LaRoche somehow find common terms:

CF Denard Span
RF Jayson Werth
LF Bryce Harper
3B Ryan Zimmerman
1B Adam LaRoche
SS Ian Desmond
2B Danny Espinosa
C Wilson Ramos/Kurt Suzuki

Even if LaRoche walks and Morse stays, the Nationals still will boast a potent lineup, top-to-bottom. If LaRoche returns, there won't be a better defensive team in baseball.

Above all else, Rizzo has ensured he'll still have plenty of money left over to spend on his remaining offseason needs. If the Nationals don't re-sign LaRoche and don't tender John Lannan a contract before tonight's deadline, they'll have roughly $90 million committed to next year's payroll. (That figure includes the raises all their arbitration-eligible players are likely to receive.)

The Nationals opened 2012 with a payroll of $92 million, and they're perfectly capable and willing to increase that number in 2013. Whether it's LaRoche, a front-line starting pitcher, a veteran reliever or some combination of all that, the funds are there for Rizzo to continue improving a roster that already won 98 games a year ago (without getting a full season of contribution from either Harper or Stephen Strasburg).

Yes, the Nationals are making a real run at winning the 2013 World Series, without sacrificing their chances of winning it in 2014 or 2015. They've got players at seven of the eight everyday positions, four starting pitchers and five relievers under their control for at least the next three seasons.

As always, there are no guarantees in baseball. The Nationals might not win a World Series in the next three years, let alone even reach the playoffs.

But no franchise in the sport is better assembled to win now and down the road than the Nationals. And yesterday's acquisition of Span only made that statement more true.

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Dusty Baker drops hints about playoff roles for Nationals rookies

Dusty Baker drops hints about playoff roles for Nationals rookies

The Nationals beat the Diamondbacks in their series finale on Thursday and by doing so inched closer to securing home field advantage in the NL Division Series. They earned the win despite playing without Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper, who remained out with injuries.

In order to make it happen, they needed contributions from unexpected places. Catcher Pedro Severino homered and walked. Second baseman Wilmer Difo also hit a home run, the first of his young MLB career. Michael Taylor had three hits and drove in two runs. Those three led the way on offense on a day their regulars - Trea Turner, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Danny Espinosa and Anthony Rendon - went a combined 2-for-16. 

Rookie Reynaldo Lopez also chipped in with 3 2/3 innings of relief work. The coincidence that he, Severino and Difo all made their mark was not lost on them or manager Dusty Baker. The trio are all young players from the Dominican Republic.

"It was Dominican Republic Day," Baker said. Our Dominicans hit two home runs and pitched well... Maybe they had it mixed up, they thought today was Latin Day instead of yesterday."

Baker was referring to a special pregame ceremony at Nationals Park on Wednesday that featured Latin American flags on the field and a representative from the D.R. to throw out the first pitch. 

The players picked up on it, as well.

“It was very fun and exciting," Lopez said through an interpreter. "He said as I came into the dugout to Dusty having known that Difo had hit a home run as well as Severino already and they’ve been doing a good job and I was pitching very well, he said ‘I guess today is really Latin day.’ It was just very humorous, but it was fun. And he kept repeating that because we were all performing so well for him, so it was great.”

"Very excited that all three of us were able to do a great job for the team today," Difo said through an interpreter. "Just keep working hard to show everybody that we deserve to be here and that we can contribute and help the team win. I’m just very excited about today."

Severino knows he will be on the playoff roster at this point. With the loss of Wilson Ramos to a season-ending injury, Severino is the next man up.

Difo and Taylor would need an injury or two to clear room for them. They are unlikely to make the final 25.

[RELATED: What will Joe Ross' role be for Nationals in playoffs?]

Lopez, though, is in a battle for the bullpen. Depending on how many pitchers they keep, Lopez could definitely find himself in that mix. And Baker is already talking like Lopez will be pitching in October.

"He's been working on some things," Baker said. "He picked up his tempo. He throws strikes. He appears unfazed by the situation or having to come into the game. And I'm just hoping that he continues that same mindset when we get to the playoffs because it's the same game. More at stake and the world's watching, but it's the same game."

Baker also dropped a hint about Severino that should be kept in mind over the next week. 

"All of our young guys dont appear to be intimidated at all by being young. They're about to venture into territories that they haven't been before. And I told him, 'Hey, man, I want you to do the same thing as [Clayton] Kershaw if you're starting in L.A.' And he said OK and left it at that."

It sounds like Severino has at least a decent chance of starting Game 1 on Friday.

[RELATED: Matt Belisle sounds like safe bet for Nats playoff roster]

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What will Joe Ross' role be for Nationals in playoffs vs. Dodgers?

What will Joe Ross' role be for Nationals in playoffs vs. Dodgers?

It was just a few weeks ago that Joe Ross' postseason availability was in question, and if he could return in time, whether he would pitch out of the Nationals' bullpen and or as a starter wasn't clear. Manager Dusty Baker wondered aloud if he would get his young right-hander back, even as Stephen Strasburg dealt with elbow injuries.

The progress Ross has made in a short period of time since is remarkable and after his 90-pitch outing on Thursday afternoon against the Diamondbacks, the 23-year-old looks and feels ready for the playoffs, and not just to pitch in relief, either.

"I'm hoping I get the opportunity to start, but that's up to them," Ross said. "But I'll take any opportunity I get to pitch and go out there and compete. I just want to help the team in any way I can."

Ross wasn't great on Thursday in his third start back from the disabled list. He only made it four innings, as his pitch count soared early. But in giving up just one run, he's now pitched 9 2/3 innings in three games back. During that stretch he's allowed three runs and struck out 14.

[RELATED: Wilson Ramos hopes to be back with Nationals]

It has been a process of baby steps for the Nats starter, a slow progression back from right shoulder inflammation, an injury rehab that featured a setback in late July. Now, though, he is essentially back to normal, just in time for the NL Division Series which begins next week.

"I feel good. I felt really good today. I felt really good last start. I guess it's just a point of executing pitches," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind really on whether I can go out and compete."

Baker mentioned that Ross could pitch in releif early in the NLDS against the Dodgers. That could keep him available for a start later on, if it's kept short like a normal bullpen session.

But one has to wonder if Ross has improved his case enough to pitch Game 3 of that series, given Gio Gonzalez' recent struggles. The lefty has allowed 19 earned runs in his last 23 innings going back five starts.

Regardless, Ross has certainly come a long way in just three MLB outings.

"He looks ready," second baseman Wilmer Difo said through an interpreter.

With all the negative injury news the Nationals have received in recent days, between Wilson Ramos' season-ending injury and Strasburg essentially ruled out for the NLDS, having Ross fully back in the mix is a nice change of fortune for the NL East champs.

[RELATED: Matt Belisle sounds like safe bet for Nats playoff roster]

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