Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo described Denard Span as a "front line defensive center fielder" when he acquired the then-28-year-old outfielder from the Minnesota Twins last winter. Rizzo went on to say that he saw the 2002 Twins' first-round pick who turned 29 in February as, "a confident leadoff type of hitter (who) appeals greatly to us because of his skill set as an offensive player. You know, high average guy, .350 OBP-type of guy, doesn't strike out - one of the tougher guys in the league to strike out - so a contact bat and can really, really run... from the left side of the plate, which keeps our lineup balanced and a guy that in the past has stolen a lot of bases and we feel is really going to come into his own as a base stealer in the National League."
The defense has been there all along in his first season in center field with the Nats. At the plate, however, Span's issues with lefties (.194/.255/.239) this season were an unexpected development. A career .287/.357/.373 hitter against left-handed pitchers, Span actually hit better versus lefties than right-handers in 2012 (.301/.374/.365 vs left-handers to .275/.328/.408 vs right-handers) but he has underperformed even his worst season against left-handers at the major league level in 2011, when Span, struggling with concussion issues, had a .240/.337/.320 line vs southpaws. Against right-handers, the Nationals leadoff man has a .307/.355/.428 line so far in 2013 that's actually a slight improvement over his .285/.350/.393 career line versus right-handers across the board.
Span struggled versus left-handers to the point that manager Davey Johnson started talking platoon around the All-Star break. Span couldn't explain his issues with left-handers, saying earlier this week that, as the numbers above show, it hasn't been an issue in previous seasons. "I hit lefties. I always have," Span said. "You check my stats. I normally don't say that, but I've hit them my whole career in the big leagues." Span said he knew he was brought to the Nationals to be an everyday player, not part of a platoon, and his improvement at the plate in the last month-plus has quieted some of the talk of sitting him against lefties.
The Nats outfielder's current 17-game hit streak has impressed both his manager and GM. Over the course of the streak, which started with a 3-for-8 night in the Nationals' 8-7, 15-inning win over the Atlanta Braves on Aug. 17, Span has a .406/.453/.551 line in 77 plate appearances, with three doubles, two triples and a home run over that stretch.
"He's in a good spot," Johnson told reporters this week. "He's been swinging the bat really good. And he's been more aggressive. I mean, the first bat, he kind of takes a lot of pitches, but after that he's real aggressive and he's a much better hitter. He was about ready to go into the .250s and got on this 15-, 16-game hitting streak."
"I like the comeback, the bounceback that Denard Span has had," Rizzo told 106.7 the Fan on Wednesday. "He's playing extremely well. My adage always is, these guys with track records, they usually get to their numbers and they're called averages for a reason. He's approaching where he needs to be and where he should be."
After the recent run, Span has a .278/.329/.379 line in 132 games and and 568 plate appearances, over which he's been worth +2.4 fWAR, down some from last season's +3.6 fWAR and .283/.342/.395 line over 568 plate appearances.
Span's .263/.320/.358 line over 89 games in the first half of the 2013 campaign is not exactly what the Nationals were looking for when they acquired him from the Twins. The .311/.351/.427 Span of the second half is more like it. Part of the appeal when they got him was that Span was under control through 2014 (at $6.5 million) with a club option for 2015 (at $9 million or a $500,000 buyout).
Rizzo told reporters last winter that there are some options in the organization. "We think we've got guys in the system that fill this role," Rizzo said. "But they're years away. They're in the pipeline and we're looking for big things from them down the road." The Nationals are looking for big things from Span down the stretch and in his second season in D.C. Beyond next season? If he just does what he's done this season, Span would make a decent fourth outfielder. But he needs to be more than that in 2014.
Patrick Reddington blogs about the Nationals for href="http://www.federalbaseball.com/"target="_new">Federal Baseball and appears here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.