Kevin Jairaj-US PRESSWIRE
Washington Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo told reporters this past November that Denard Span's running game was one aspect of the outfielder's skill set that could see improvement with a move to the National League. The former Twins' outfielder said he's been working on stealing bases more than "anybody probably knows."
In praising Denard Span after the late November trade which brought the 28-year-old, five-year veteran to the Washington Nationals from the Minnesota Twins, Nats' GM Mike Rizzo described the '02 1st Round pick as a "a true defensive ballhawk center field type of guy with great range," who, "Sabermetrically and with a scout's eye," was, "... a front line defensive center fielder." Offensively, Rizzo said, Span was a, "high average guy, .350 OBP-type of guy," who, "... doesn't strike out," or is at least, "... one of the tougher guys in the league to strike out." If there was room for improvement anywhere, Rizzo said it was on the basepaths. Span is, ".. a guy that in the past has stolen a lot of bases," the Nats' general manager explained, "and we feel is really going to come into his own as a base stealer in the National League."
Span too said it was an area of his game that could use improvement. Span stole 18 bases in 25 attempts in 98 games in his rookie campaign with the Twins in 2008. In '09 he was 23 for 33 over 145 games. Span stole 26 bases in 30 attempts in 2010, collecting the highest stolen base total of his career in 153 games. In his injury-shortened 2011 season, Span stole six bases in seven attempts and last year in Minnesota the speedy outfielder stole 17 in 23 attempts.
"It's something I've been working on more than anybody probably knows," Span told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.'s Holden Kushner and Danny Rouhier in a mid-December interview. "But it's to be more of a threat on the bases," the outfielder explained, "I feel like if I add that to the team, add that to my game I will be a complete... first of all, it will only help the team having me at second or third base with the meat of the lineup coming up. But I feel like, myself as a player, if I can add that to my game, I will be an all-around, leadoff, prototypical player." Span, in a more recent interview with Paul Allen on KFAN Sports Radio in Minnesota before he arrived at his first camp with the Nats, joked that he was going to try for more stolen bases than he's ever collected before in 2013. "I plan on stealing 40 this year," Span said, "That's my plan."
When he arrived at his first Spring Training with the Nationals, the outfielder talked to the Washington Post's James Wagner about the work he's doing to improve his running game, admitting that he has a lot to learn about the National League's pitchers and their moves, but reiterating that it's something he's tried hard to improve this winter:
"'Base stealing is an art,'" [Span] said. "'It’s not all about speed. I get it all the time, people are like, ‘As fast as you are, you should have 50 stolen bases every year. You get on base a lot.’ Base stealing is about reading pitchers and reaction and all base stealers aren’t the fastest either. There’s a lot that goes into base stealing.'"
So what does Span's new manager think about adding a base-stealing threat to his lineup? Davey Johnson was asked on Saturday. Would he like to see Span stealing bases with all the power bats behind him in the lineup, assuming he does end up leading off as expected? "There [are] pretty good power bats all the way through [the lineup]," Johnson said, "I don't mind him being on second... as long as he's 40 for 40." The Nats' manager explained that the past regime might have been more fond of running than he is personally.
"I think [Jim Riggleman] was more enamored with the running game than I am," Johnson said, "I'm not as bad as [Earl] Weaver. But, I like to run deeper in the counts, but I haven't talked to [Span] about that. But I like the threat of running causing maybe better pitch selections at home, more fastballs." And the Nationals need to hit the fastballs they get better than they did when he first took over on the bench. The Nats' manager said he isn't going to hold Span back, but he's yet to sit down and talk to him about that part of his game.
The Nationals were sixth in the NL in stolen bases in 2012 with 105 stolen bases, behind the Milwaukee Brewers' league-leading 158 SB and the Nats were 13th of 16 in runners caught stealing leaving them tied for 5th overall in the NL with the San Francisco Giants in SB% with a 75% success rate. While most of the talk out of the Nats' camp on Saturday was about preventing stolen bases, something the pitchers struggled with last season, there's at least one player concentrating on improving that part of his game on the offensive end.