Hi-dee-ho! Twins fan here. First of all, thanks for Alex Meyer. He immediately becomes the best pitching prospect in Minnesota's system (though that's a pretty low bar to clear, to be honest). We promise to overhype and overvalue him appropriately. But more importantly, I wanted to let you know what kind of a player you were getting in Denard Span, from someone who has had the pleasure of watching him play every day for the last five seasons.
Span is an above-average defensive center fielder with good range and ball skills, a strong first read, and a decent arm. If the Phillies wind up getting Michael Bourn, Span will be the third-best defensive center fielder in the NL East, but he’ll be a lot closer to Bourn and B.J. Upton than to whatever dreck the Marlins and Mets roll out, and is more a reflection on how good those other guys are.
He’s got good on-base skills and should be a huge improvement over Nats leadoff hitters last year, who posted just a .325 OBP with a .419 slugging percentage. While Span’s not likely to slug better than that, he shouldn’t be far off, especially in a move from a pitcher’s park to one that has played closer to neutral. Regardless, his ability to get on base will far exceed what Washington got last year, given that he’s never posted an OBP lower than .328, and has a career mark of .357, giving additional chances with runners on base to Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, and Michael Morse. He’s also typically a good baserunner, if not a huge basestealer, who adds significant value with his ability to go from first to third and first to home.
Finally, at the risk of losing any and all of my remaining saber-cred, Denard Span is a damn ballplayer. Take all the scrappy, gritty clichés you’ve heard about David Eckstein or (I assume) Steve Lombardozzi Jr., and apply them to Span, who busts his ass on every hit out of the batter’s box and chasing down every ball to the outfield. Span is just fun to watch play, and should become a fan favorite in D.C., just like he was here in Minnesota.
All that intensity and enthusiasm that makes Span so appealing as a ballplayer, also works against him as he tries to avoid injury and stay on the field. Span grew up playing football, and still plays baseball like a particularly physical defensive back. Two years ago, Span had significant concussion issues after running into Royals catcher Brayan Pena. It didn’t look like a huge hit, and he finished the game, but Span was very seriously shaken up. He was held out for almost two months, and when he returned, he went 2-for-35 in nine games, looking lost at the plate and generally dazed, demonstrating that he had come back far too early. After more than another month off, he was his usual self. Last year he played only 128 games after injuring his shoulder diving for a line drive.
None of that sounds particularly egregious until you also keep in mind that, in both cases, Span was either less than truthful or uncommunicative with the Twins and their medical staff about how he was feeling and the extent of his injuries. (Or he allowed himself to be pressured into coming back too early in both cases, which is a realistic possibility based on the Twins’ medical team’s recent history.) In 2011, he came back too early and could have done additional serious damage to his brain, and in 2012, he was declared day-to-day for 10 days before he came back and played three games and then went on the DL. The confusion surrounding the injury was compounded by Span’s claustrophobia and resultant inability to get an MRI. The Twins were left to go with Span’s self-assessment, and their trainers, which proved faulty.
With additional wear and tear (and the increased chances of another brain injury), there is certainly risk that Span could lose a large chunk of time in any given season and perhaps suffer an early decline if he doesn’t follow the correct treatment plan for what ailing him. But that risk is definitely smaller for the Nationals, who only have a two-year commitment to Span while he’s 29 and 30 years old.
One other weird note: While Span is a good baserunner, as I mentioned, he had one stretch in 2010 where he kept getting picked off. In fact, he was picked off ten times each in 2009 and 2010, but there was a particularly ridiculous stretch in 2010 where it seemed to happen constantly, so much so that he essentially stopped taking leads. He’s corrected the problem, but he’s also adjusted his baserunning strategy to de-emphasize the stolen base.
Sorry, there’s no real ugly here. Span’s great. I love watching him play and am really going to miss watching him on a daily basis. You’re going to like him too. He’s a strong defensive center-fielder who pushes Harper to a corner where he belongs, as well as a good left-handed hitter who actually hits lefties well. His skills, combined with an incredibly reasonable contract, make him a valuable commodity in a market that saw B.J. Upton land $15 million per, and the price Washington paid for him is unlikely to hurt in the short or medium run, given the state of the pitching staff and the risk that Meyer could wind up in the bullpen. I wish him and you only the best, and I’m extremely pleased to see him land in a situation where he could win 100 games next year and a World Series, while playing for one of the best and most underrated managers in the history of the game. You guys are going to have a lot of fun next year.
• (ed. note - Michael Bates is one of SBN’s Designated Columnists and one of the minds behind The Platoon Advantage. Follow him at @commnman.)