Denard Span: Nationals' Defensive Ballhawk On Year Two In D.C.

Greg Fiume

Nationals' center fielder Denard Span finished strong in his first year in the nation's capital and the 29-year-old outfielder is determined to have a big season in D.C. in 2014. Can Span turn his late run last season into a strong campaign in Washington?

Denard Span signed a 5-year/$16.5M extension with the Minnesota Twins in 2010 which made him an attractive target for the Washington Nationals as General Manager Mike Rizzo searched for a center fielder in the winter between the 2012 and 2013 seasons. The Nats sent then-23-year-old right-handed pitching prospect Alex Meyer to the Twins in return for Span, a leadoff hitter Rizzo said was a defensive ballhawk and a good fit in center in the nation's capital who could bridge the gap until some of the organization's young outfield prospects were ready for major league action.

"You're talking about a true defensive ballhawk center field type of guy with great range. Sabermetrically and with a scout's eye, he's a front line defensive center fielder." - Mike Rizzo on Denard Span, Nov 2013

"We think we've got guys in the system that fill this role," Rizzo explained. "But they're years away. They're in the pipeline and we're looking for big things from them down the road. But as far as an established guy, at his age... he's a 28-year-old guy, still just reaching the prime of his career, with his skill set, I really think that his game is going to translate to the National League very, very well."

The team-friendly contract Span signed with the Twins paid him $4.75M in his first year with the Nationals. He put up a somewhat disappointing .279/.327/.380 line in 153 games and 662 plate appearances over which he was worth +3.5 fWAR, struggling to hit left-handed pitching, but coming on strong over the last month-plus of the season as he put together a 29-game hit-streak and a .338/.375/.459 line in the final 39 games on the schedule as the Nats made an ill-fated run at a return to the postseason. In 2014, the soon-to-turn-30-year-old outfielder will make $6.5M and the contract includes a $9M team option for 2015 with a $500K buyout.

Span was asked on Saturday at the NatsFest event held at the Gaylord Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, MD, what the future held for him in D.C. and what his thoughts were at the start of a year which could end with him hitting free agency?

"I fell in love with the team, fell in love with the organization, the city, and if it's my will to be here, this is where I want to be." - Denard Span on what future holds after 2014 season

"I don't know what my future holds with the Nationals," Span told reporters. "Who knows? Do I want to be here? Of course. I fell in love with the team, fell in love with the organization, the city, and if it's my will to be here, this is where I want to be. I'm just looking forward to going out this year and building off my last month and a half of the season and just doing bigger and better things. I'm excited."

Span already talked with new Nationals' skipper Matt Williams about what the manager expects from him this season. "We had a short conversation down in Orlando at the Winter Meetings," Span said, "and he told me that he wanted me to be more aggressive on the bases. He said he wanted me to run more and I like that."

Rizzo said last winter he thought Span could improve on what he's done previously on the basepaths and it was something the outfielder concentrated on as he prepared for the 2013 campaign, but he stole just 20 bases in 26 attempts with nine of the stolen bases coming in the month of September as he surged down the stretch.

"I haven't been as successful stealing bases in my career. But that's something that every day I strive to get better at and I will get better." - Denard Span on working on stealing bases this winter

It's something he said on Saturday that he continues to work on. "I haven't been as successful stealing bases in my career," Span said, "but that's something that every day I strive to get better at and I will get better. I'll get more than 20 this year, I'll tell you that."

"I've studied film. I've studied some Rickey Henderson film. Some Vince Coleman film," Span said. He's also worked with a speed coach as he has in previous seasons. "I've got a speed coach, obviously, that I work out with every offseason. But I've been doing a lot of biometrics, a lot of explosive stuff, and just trying to improve in any way I can. Work on reaction time, little drills, stuff like that so, hopefully, I'm confident that that is going to translate over onto the field."

Span's strong finish helped to make his slow start a little easier to deal with and left him confident that he can get the same consistent results over a full season.

"Even though I still know that I can play at that level for longer than a month and a half," he said, "it was a little bit easier going into the offseason, but like I said, I'm just concentrating on being consistent like that for the course of the season. I look at it, I played good for a month of the season last year and how I finished, if I can do that for an extended period of time, I think it will be a good summer for myself and my teammates."

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