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Nationals Offseason Plan: Deciding whether to pick up Denard Span's option

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Last week we began our look at the offseason with a look at why the Nats should not pick up Adam LaRoche's contract option. Today we'll take a look at why the Nats should pick up Denard Span's option.

The Nats will almost certainly exercise Denard Span's $9 million option for 2015.
The Nats will almost certainly exercise Denard Span's $9 million option for 2015.
H.Darr Beiser-USA TODAY Sports

It's time to look towards the offseason and the decisions the Nationals will have to make regarding their 2015 roster. Last week, we examined why the Nats should not exercise Adam LaRoche's $15 million option for 2015.  Today, we're going to look at why the Nats should exercise Denard Span's $9 million option.  First, some details on the option.

  • Span has a team option for next season, which means that if the Nationals exercise it, he can't opt out
  • His option is for $9 million
  • There is a $500,000 buyout if the Nats choose not to exercise the option

When you factor in the buyout, Mike Rizzo has an $8.5 million decision to make about whether or not to keep Denard Span for 2015.  Let's answer the same questions that we did with Adam LaRoche last week.

  1. Will Denard Span be worth $8.5 million next season?
  2. Do the Nationals have internal options that could adequately (or better) replace Span for 2015?
  3. Could the Nationals better allocate that $8.5 million if they choose not to exercise the option?

Will Denard Span be worth $8.5 million next season?

The same rules that applied when I talked about LaRoche apply here.  Free agents are looking to get paid based on what they have done, while the Nats should be more focused on what the player will do in 2015.  Since we looked at four seasons (plus a projection for next season) with LaRoche, let's do the same with Span.

Season

Age PA AVG OBP SLG HR R RBI SB wOBA wRC+ BsR Off Def fWAR rWAR
2011 27 311 .264 .328 .359 2 37 16 6 .308 90 1.9 -1.6 9 1.8 2.4
2012 28 568 .283 .342 .395 4 71 41 17 .325 104 3.2 5.6 9.4 3.5 5
2013 29 662 .279 .327 .380 4 75 47 20 .313 97 2.4 -0.1 12.4 3.4 2.2
2014 30 668 .302 .355 .416 5 94 37 31 .341 117 4.9 17.7 -2.4 3.8 3.6
2015 (Steamer) 31 689 .279 .335 .382 5 87 51 24 .319 102 1.6 3.1 2.1 2.8

Again, let's point towards Beyond the Box Score for a look at a traditional aging curve and how different types of players tend to age.  We'll use the same graph as last week, which shows that Fast and Young Old Guys tend to have longer peaks than the average player.

Span pretty much fits the bill of a Fast player by the article's criteria.  The criteria that the article used were hitters with 25 or more stolen bases and 8 or more triples.  While 2014 was just the second time in his seven year career that Span has hit both of those marks in a season, he has 141 stolen bases (20.14/season) and 55 triples (7.86/season) in his career.  By looking at the graph above, we'll see that typically players with Span's skill set don't see their skills erode as drastically (or quickly) as the average player.  In fact, we'll see that players with his skill set tend to remain closer to their peak value longer than any other type of player.

Looking at what Steamer projects

Steamer projects some positive regression with the glove for Span in 2015, which seems fair.  Since most of the people reading this (like myself) watch a lot of Nats games, it may be difficult to wrap your brain around the fact that Span finished 2014 with -2.4 Defensive RAA (-3 Defensive Runs Saved).  It's astounding to me because of how routine he often makes difficult plays look, but the defensive metrics didn't love him this season.  Defensive metrics have loved him in the past, though, as he has +35.0 Defensive RAA (19 DRS) for his career.  Steamer projects him for +2.1 Defensive RAA in 2015, which would be a bit of a rebound from 2014, but still short of his peak defensive value.

In the batter's box, Steamer projects him to perform similarly in 2015 to how he did in 2013.  In 2013, Span hit .279/.327/.380.  Steamer projects him to hit .279/.335/.382 next season.  Basically, Steamer seems to believe that he'll keep his walk rate at 2014 levels (7.5% in 2014, 6.3% in 2013, 8.6% career) and that his batting average will regress a bit below his career norm (.286).  Although I think he'll hit a bit better than .279, it's reasonable to think that he'll bat closer to .280 than .300 next season. His ISO (.115 in 2014, .106 career) probably regresses a bit as well.

Baserunning is a key part of Span's game, so let's examine those projections, too.  Steamer might be undervaluing him a touch here.  After posting the second highest total of his career in terms of Baserunning RAA this past season (4.9), they have him following that up with the worst performance of his career (1.6).  They're projecting that he'll go 24 for 33 (72.7%) in stolen base attempts next season.  Span was successful on 81.6% (31 for 38) of his attempts this season and has been successful on 77.5% of his attempts in his career.  It's not a crazy projection, but it seems a bit off.

All of that adds up to a player that Steamer projects will be worth 2.8 fWAR next season.  While I called LaRoche's projection (1.9 fWAR) a tad optimistic, I think that this projection might be underselling Span a bit.  The defensive RAA seems about right.  The batting RAA seems close, but maybe a hair low.  The baserunning RAA seems a little low as well.  Either way, he's pretty close to a 3 WAR player.

Once again, WAR isn't the only (or even best) way to evaluate a player.  It does take into account everything a player does on the field and tries to place a fair value to place on his overall value.  If we use the $6.5 million/1 WAR value for a free agent that we did when discussing LaRoche last week, Span figures to be worth $18.2 million for next season (no... he's certainly not worth $18 million).  Even if we want to drop that figure (considerably) to $5 million/1 WAR, Span figures to be worth $14 million.  Picking up his option for $8.5 million seems to be an absolute no-brainer.

Internal Options

The Nationals minor league strength lies primarily in two areas: Starting Pitching and Outfield.  Since Bryce Harper could move over to center field, we'll evaluate the Nats top outfield prospects even if they're not all center fielders.

  • Steven Souza Jr., 25, won the International League MVP award this season, batting .350/.432/.590 with 18 homers, 25 doubles, and 26 stolen bases in AAA.  He batted .130/.231/.391 with 2 homers in 26 big league plate appearances.  He played some center field this season, but figures to be a corner outfielder in the majors.
  • Michael Taylor, 23, won the Eastern League Rookie of the Year, batting .313/.396/.539 with 22 homers, 17 doubles, and 34 steals in AA.  He batted .205/.279/.359 with 1 homer in 43 big league plate appearances.  Taylor figures to be the Nats top position player prospect heading into 2014.  While his glove appears ready, he could use more time to refine his hit tool (specifically the strikeouts.  He struck out in 30.0% of his plate appearances across three levels in 2014).  He's considered to be among the top defensive outfielders in the minors and plays center field.
  • Brian Goodwin, 23, simply isn't a candidate for 2015.  I've included him because he might still have a big league future in the Nats organization.  He entered 2014 as the Nats top offensive prospect according to Baseball America, Minor League Ball, Fangraphs, and Baseball Prospectus.  He spent the final two months of the minor league season on the disabled list after having a disappointing first three months in Syracuse (.219/.342/.328).  He had two solid seasons at the lower levels in 2012 and 2013.  It's certainly not time to give up on him.  However, he's certainly going to have to show he can perform better in AAA before getting the call.

Bryce Harper could move to center field and create a vacancy in left for Souza.  Taylor could start the year in the majors and provide about what Span would defensively.  Both are hitters that look like they should be able to be productive at the big league level (Souza is certainly more polished), but neither has proven it.  Span is a better option for 2015 than either of them.  It's not particularly close.

Could the Nationals better allocate that $8.5 million?

To pick up about 3 WAR on the open market (at any position), the Nats would likely to have to spend quite a bit more than $8.5 million.  They do have several players due arbitration raises and a few players that they would like to lock up long-term.  Saving $8.5 million would make a minor dent in terms of locking up a player like Ian Desmond, Doug Fister, or Jordan Zimmermann, but it would be at the cost of an expected win or two for 2015.  The Nats should be more focused on 2015 than anything else because of the.....

Marginal Win Curve

I noticed a lot of discussion about trades in the comments of the LaRoche post.  Some of them involved Span.  I promise that I'll spend some more time talking about trades (both trade chips and guys that the Nats could target) during the offseason.  For those who were discussing trading Span and letting Souza or Taylor take over, let's take a quick look at something known as the Win Curve.

Mind you, this graph is a bit old.  I believe it actually dates back to 2007 (sorry I couldn't find anything that illustrates my point that was more recent), so it doesn't really account all that well for inflation or the addition of a second wildcard spot three years ago.  The same logic still applies, though.

If you have a roster that's projected to end up around 90 wins, you should be willing to pay more to add a win or two than you should if you have a roster that's projected to end up around 70 wins.  For a 90 win team, that one win may be the difference between making and missing the playoffs (along with the increased revenue both in September [pennant chase] and in the postseason [home playoff games]).  For a 70 win team, one win is the difference between finishing 70-92 and 71-91 and missing the playoffs by a wide margin either way.

The 2014 Nats won 96 games and the NL East crown.  Barring an awful lot of trades involving their MLB roster, the Nats are going to have most of the 2014 team in tact to begin next season.  They will be expected to contend again.  It would be foolish to say that they're too high on the win curve (100+ wins would pretty much guarantee a playoff spot, but projecting 100+ wins seems a bit crazy), so every win counts.  They should worry less about the $8.5 million and more about fielding the best team possible for 2015.

Exercise the option?

One word answer for hscer and RobBob: Absolutely!