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November 29, 2012 / Nat Anacostia

Denard Span vs. B.J. Upton

It was an exciting day for the Nationals and the NL East, as the Nats traded their top pitching prospect Alex Meyer to the Twins for Denard Span, with the trade coming less than 24 hours after the Braves signed B.J. Upton as a free agent. How do the two center fielders compare?

Here are their stats from FanGraphs over the last three seasons (2010–2012):

Span     Upton

G        351         453

HR          9            69

BB%    8.5%       9.7%

SO%   10.9%    26.2%

Avg    .271        .242

OBP    .334        .317

SLG    .367        .436

wOBA  .313       .328

wRC+    95          109

Fld      21.9         0.4

BsR        7.0        14.5

WAR     8.6         11.5

Obviously, they are very different players. Upton swings the bigger bat and hits with power; he’s also been more effective as a base runner. Span, on the other hand, has a higher on-base percentage and, at least according to the advanced fielding metrics, is the superior outfielder. Span has lost significant time due to injuries, whereas Upton has been relatively healthy. If we look at wins above replacement after normalizing for the difference in games played, they appear to be fairly equal in value—Span has averaged 3.7 wins per 150 games, compared to 3.8 for Upton.

As Dave Cameron of FanGraphs noted, the Nats got a center fielder who is very similar in value, but very dissimilar as a player to Upton. Looking at expected value over the next couple of years, I think that Upton’s value should be a little higher for two reasons. First, he’s been healthier, which gives him slightly higher odds of staying healthy over the next couple of years. It’s almost impossible to predict injuries, but we do know that players with injury history do have at least somewhat higher risks of subsequent injuries than players who’ve been healthy. (We should be cautious, though – it’s just a statistical tendency, and it’s entirely possible that Span could wind up healthier than Upton.) The Nats would do well to keep Roger Bernadina around as a backup. The second factor is that Upton is six months younger than Span. It’s a small difference, but it does give Upton another slight edge.

Despite the fact that I think that the odds favor Upton playing a little better than Span, I think the Nats got the better deal, at least with respect to how Span will fit on their team and with their other plans. First, the Nats already have several right-handed power hitters who strike out a lot (Michael Morse, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman to some extent; Danny Espinosa is a switch hitter, but he definitely strikes out a lot). What they needed was an on-base guy, especially someone who could lead off. Second, as a left-handed hitter, Span will help make the lineup more balanced in handedness and make it easier for Davey Johnson to manage the matchups. Third, Span’s contract for two guaranteed seasons in 2013 and 2014, with a team option for 2015, gives the Nats more flexibility in future roster construction. In particular, if prospect Brian Goodwin develops, he could be a candidate to take over in center field in a couple of years. The Braves, on the other hand, with a 5-year contract for Upton, face the prospect of declining skills in the last couple of years under the contract. Finally, it goes without saying that the Nats got a lot more value for their money (two years for $11.25 million with the option for the third year costing $9 million, versus Upton’s $75.25 million over five years). While I don’t have any idea what the Nats’ overall salary budget is, we do have to acknowledge that every team has a budget, and saving money on Span should give them more money to work with, for example, to obtain a fifth starter.

Overall, I really liked this trade.

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