Denard Span has Been What the Nationals Needed

 

When the disappointment of the Washington Nationals 2013 is talked about and solutions for 2014 bandied about one of the main solutions people have is to sign a corner outfielder, move Harper to center, and Span to fourth outfielder. This isn't a bad idea in some cases. Curtis Granderson and Nelson Cruz could both be had on relatively short and cheap deals, but most people don't want short cheap deals. They want one of the two Boras clients, Choo or Ellsbury. Neither of those would be a good signing. Both will cost a draft pick, both will be expensive, and both will want long term deals, and as far as Choo goes he is in the midst of one of the better seasons of his career. This is the exact wrong moment to sign a player as a free agent, especially when they are represented by Scott Boras.   

While it isn't a bad idea to sign someone to start in the outfield and have Span as a fourth outfielder, it isn't a good idea either. The first year with a new team, in a new league can be a rough season for many players. The exact reason is unknown but Span is not the first, nor will he be the last, player to go to a new team and struggle in their first season; and Span's struggles have been odd. Against right handed pitchers he is the player he has always been, but against left handed pitchers he is different. For his career Span has a .738 OPS against right handers and a .725 OPS against left handers. Hardly a difference at all, but in 2013 he has a .763 OPS against right handers and a .426 OPS against left handers. Ask yourself this question when judging those numbers: what is more telling the 128 plate appearances in 2013 or the 977 for his career? 

2013 is the worst offensive season of Denard Span's career. As it would be noted with any player having a career year in the positive direction it should be noted with one having one in the negative direction that this type of season is hard to repeat. Regression to the mean happens in all directions. Span has an OPS against left handed pitchers nearly .300 points off of his career average. That is a statistical anomaly if one ever existed, and to despite the offensive woes Span is still the fourth best position player on the Nats by fWAR. The reason for this is because baseball is not a game played only in the batter’s box.   

Talk to any casual fan about what has plagued the Washington Nationals and one of the first responses out of their mouth will be Michael Morse. The team misses Michael Morse. This might be hard to explain to the common fan but Michael Morse was not a useful player for the 2012 Nats and would have made the 2013 Nats worse. In 2012 Morse had a 0.0 fWAR meaning he was a replacement level player. He hit plenty of homeruns and was a good offensive player, but he was horrendous in the outfield, and as a Seattle Mariner in 2013 Morse has been even worse and is worth only -0.4 fWAR. That is nearly a two win drop off from Span and his 1.4 fWAR. If looking through culprits in fWAR the biggest missing piece from 2012 to 2013 is Danny Espinosa who had 3.4 fWAR in 2012, and Nationals second basemen have combined for -0.4 fWAR in 2013.  

Span is a brilliant defender. He shouldn't lead off on days the Nationals are facing a left handed pitcher, but that isn't on Span. He doesn't fill out the line-up card. In total both Harper and Werth have hit better than Morse, and Span has played defense to a degree that more than makes up for his struggles against right handed pitching. With all things considered the Washington Nationals 2013 outfield is vastly superior to the 2012 version. Most of the Nationals issues with every day players is on the infield, but that is a tale for another time. Denard Span hasn't been the lead-off hitter the Nationals have wanted, but he has been the defensive center fielder they have needed, and giving up on him after one poor season against left handed pitching would be a mistake.  

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