Veteran manager Davey Johnson might have been happy to just go with Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper atop the Washington Nationals' order as he did after Werth returned from the broken wrist he suffered last season. "I really like Jayson Werth and [Harper] 1-2," Johnson told ESPN980's Kevin Sheehan and Thom Loverro last winter, a couple weeks before the Nats acquired Denard Span from the Twins. "I mean, they're not only run producers, but they got on base. They were outstanding at getting on base and both of them [are] outstanding base runners. I wouldn't trade those two guys for any [1-2] combination in baseball."
Nationals' GM Mike Rizzo had his eye on Denard Span, however, and he finally pulled the trigger on a deal with Minnesota that sent 2011 1st Round pick RHP Alex Meyer to the Twins in return for the then-28-year-old Span.
"Sabermetrically and with a scout's eye," Rizzo told reporters at the time. "He's a front line defensive center fielder. He's a confident leadoff type of hitter. He appeals greatly to us because of his skill set as an offensive player."
That skill set, as Rizzo saw it? "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."
It hasn't exactly worked out that way thus far. Going into play today, the now-29-year-old Span has a .266/.319/.370 line. In his career, he now has a .282/.352/.386 line, but his numbers against left-handed pitchers this season have brought him down. In his career, Span has a .285/.350/.393 line against right-handers in his career and a .275/.355/.369 line against lefties. This season, his first in the National League, Span has a .308/.359/.442 line against RHPs, but against LHPs he's put up a .146/.207/.165 line.
Span has played 89 games and made 396 plate appearances as the Nats' leadoff man, putting up .253/.312/.342 line in that spot, but Davey Johnson dropped him down in the order as part of his most-recent attempt to jump-start the Nationals' struggling offense. In eight games this season, too small a sample size to be of any real significance of course, Span is 12 for 30 (.400/.400/.700) with three doubles and two home runs in the seventh spot in the order, but the Nats' skipper told reporters this weekend he thought the moved had allowed Span to adjust his approach at the plate.
"He's swinging the bat a lot better," Johnson said after Span went 4 for 4 on Sunday with a home run and three runs scored in the Nationals' 14-1 win over the New York Mets, "He's also getting a little more aggressive."
"I think in the leadoff spot, you kind of want to make the pitcher work a lot, [and] it helps all the hitters behind him," Johnson explained. "But I think your on-base percentage always goes up if you show a pitcher you're going to hammer something when they try to get something down the middle early and get ahead. And he's been more aggressive on balls pretty much down the middle."
"He'll still take the borderline pitches," Johnson continued, "but I like his approach. And he's actually making contact out front more than even with it and rolling over it, so that's great."
Span told the Washington Times' Amanda Comak this weekend that he's been working with new hitting coach Rick Schu and Tony Tarasco and finally feels comfortable at the plate. Tonight he returns to a comfortable environment as well. Outside of his home parks (Target Field, Progressive Field and Nationals Park), Detroit's Comerica Park is the place he's played the second-most games in his career, behind only Cleveland's Progressive Field. In 33 games and 149 PAs in the Tigers' home in his career, Span has a .351/.405/.418 line with five doubles and two triples. He's batting seventh tonight in the first game of two the Nats play In Detroit this week:
#Nationals lineup at DET: Harper 7, Rendon 4, Zimmerman 5 LaRoche 3, Werth 9, Desmond 6, Span 8, Ramos 2, Tracy DH. Strasburg P— Nationals PR (@NationalsPR) July 30, 2013