Marty Niland: Welcome back, Mr. Span

Two weeks into the 2015 season, the Nationals lineup as it was envisioned at the start of spring training is beginning to take shape.

The most recent addition - and the most welcome so far - was the return of leadoff man and center fielder Denard Span on Sunday. With all due respect to Michael A. Taylor and Yunel Escobar, the man who should have been named the most valuable Nat of 2014 has been restored to his rightful place.

Span missed almost all of spring training and the first 12 games of the season after having a second unexpected core muscle surgery in March. He’s actually returning to the lineup much sooner than he or the team expected after an initial timetable that would have seen him return to action sometime next month. Instead, he was back at the top of the order just 41 days after the muscle was repaired.

Span made his impact felt almost right away, singling in his third at-bat and easily scoring from first on Ian Desmond’s double down the left field line. He didn’t need to make any spectacular plays in center field, but handled everything that came his way, giving fans some hope that he will be as productive and consistent as he was last season.

Span’s 2014 season, in which he tied for the National League lead with 184 hits and was a Gold Glove finalist, was a testament to why little things make such a big difference in baseball. Fourteen hits and eight walks over the course of a major league season might not sound like much. That’s about one hit or walk per week. But in consecutive years with 610 at-bats each, those hits and walks were the difference between an inconsistent .279/.327/.380 season in 2013 and a .302/.355/.416 campaign in 2014 that garnered Span 19 votes for NL MVP. It helped that 11 of those 14 extra hits were doubles, accounting for the 22 additional total bases he racked up in 2014 over the previous season.

Gold Glove voting is always subjective. However, Span’s supporters can make a valid case that he was robbed - just as he robbed many a player of an extra-base hit in 2014 - by a player in the spotlight of New York. Span made fewer errors than the Mets’ Juan Lagares (three vs. four), had more assists (seven vs. six), and had a higher overall fielding percentage with many more total chances (.990 in 388 TC vs. .984 in 304 TC).

Whatever.

Span’s hitting and baserunning prowess at the top of the order set the table for eventual team MVP Anthony Rendon and others. It was also the main reason the team’s run production jumped from 656 in 2013, when the Nats missed the postseason, to 686 in 2014, when they won the NL East.

Escobar was a welcome surprise at the top of the order during the last week of Span’s absence and before his unfortunate injury last week. But the Nats did not trade for him to be a leadoff man, and his contact-hitting abilities will serve the team better elsewhere in the lineup after he returns.

As for Taylor, he filled in admirably for the man many expect him to eventually replace. Although he struck out more often than a leadoff man should, he showed fine hitting ability and power that’s not often seen at the top of the order. But the baserunning and fielding mistakes he made in his first few games as a starter show that what he needs most is practice. That will come from playing every day in Triple-A Syracuse, not wasting away on the Nats bench, hoping for a couple pinch-hitting or pinch-running assignments a week and an occasional start. If he tears it up in the minors as he’s capable of, he will be back in the big leagues soon enough.

With Span back in the leadoff spot, the Nats lineup is almost complete. All they need now is for Rendon to return from the MCL injury he suffered early in spring training. While he’s back to baseball activity, there’s still no reported timetable for him to be back with the team.

Once the Nats have all the key pieces back in their lineup, they can begin to make a serious bid to hold on to their division crown.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. 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.

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