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Nationals Finally Get Their Span

Posted By Dan Wade On November 30, 2012 @ 12:15 pm In Outfielders | 7 Comments

Some trades are firecrackers, started and finished in what seems like an afternoon. Some are slow burns that start as an idle comment and weeks later turn into a swap. And then there are deals like the one that finally landed Denard Span in Washington D.C. that happen so gradually, watching the whole process unfold would take so long, it would be best seen as a montage rather than an actual portrayal. Span nearly ended up in the District at the trading deadline, the 2011 trading deadline that is, in a deal for Drew Storen that was sundered by whether or not Steve Lombardozzi would be included in the deal. There were likely discussions on and off about moving Span to DC between July, 2011 and November, 2012, but that’s how long it took for the Nationals to finally offer the Twins enough to get their man. 

Instead of a closer and a futility infielder, the Nationals solved their long-standing center field issues by sending their fourth best prospect, Alex Meyer, to the Twins in exchange for Span. Meyer isn’t going to be up this year; it flat out isn’t going to happen, so the only people who need to worry about him right now are dynasty players. I’ll be frank, I’d rather use those slots on someone else. Meyer’s velocity is compelling and he has a solid secondary pitch, but I just can’t get past his mechanics.

They aren’t bad in the sense that they portend a specific injury, that would require him to be repeating a delivery frequently enough to have a specific problem. Bad mechanics can be fixed, and Meyer has enough raw talent to clean up his motion and remain a great pitcher, but stripping down and rebuilding a delivery isn’t a foolproof process and that’s what it’s going to take to keep Meyer as a starter. For most players, Meyer will be a relevant name in 2014 or 2015, but Span will help the Nationals win now. The question is: Will he help fantasy teams win now, too?

The answer feels like it should be yes considering how much interest there was in Span this offseason, but the actual answer depends heavily on league depth. In an eight- or ten- team league, it’s hard to believe that he’ll be one of the 24-30 best outfielders, which is what he’d have to be in order to be worth rostering in a league that small. That said, of the qualifying outfielders, Span ranked 43 in wRC+, which would make him rosterable in any mixed league deeper than 14 teams or in NL-only leagues of any meaningful depth. At this point, Span is what he is. He’s not going to hit for power and he’s not going to swipe 60 bases, but he’ll steal 20-25 and hit .280-.300 if he’s healthy and there’s certainly some value in that.

A major issue for Span is how much of his success is BABIP-driven. He sports a solid line drive rate, but when his BABIP dropped to .235 in June of last season, he hit .221/.302/.368 and stole just a pair of bases. When his BABIP spiked the next month, he hit .361/.411/.433 with four steals. The lack of real secondary value means that if Span isn’t slapping singles, he’s not giving owners any real value. One thing that will change with his move to the Nationals is that he’s likely to be driven in with much greater frequency, which gives him a little bit of additional value, but nothing that isn’t still dependent on his getting on base.

Further complicating matters is the fact that Span was substantially better at Target Field over the last three seasons than he was away from it. In 2010, his batting average was 74 points higher at home than it was on the road, in 2011 the spread was 36 points, and in 2012 the gulf widened to 98 points. His OPS was nearly 300 points higher at home last season, despite Target Field’s reputation as being a pitcher-friendly park.

The good news for the Nats is that Nationals Park has played very similarly to Target Field in terms of hit rate over the last two seasons. If the issue is more idiosyncratic than park factors show, Span’s value could take a serious dive until he learns to hit in his new park, though my suspicions are that any swoon that does happen will be due more to a new set of pitchers than to anything park related.

While he certainly isn’t injury-prone, health is something of a concern with Span, who last broke the 130 game mark in 2010. His injury issues don’t look like anything that will absolutely be problematic going forward, but at least one is an on-going issue. Span suffers time to time with vestibular neuritis, a condition that can produce some serious vertigo and balance issues, which complicated his return from his concussion in 2011. It’s not something that’s likely to emerge on its own — the Twins were able to keep it from being much of an issue — but a hit to the head, even one not severe enough to produce a concussion, could bring back the symptoms he had previously.

The things Span does well: credible center field defense, taking an extra base, taking an above-average number of pitches as a lead-off hitter, etc. are important, as is his incredibly team-friendly contract, but they’re not the kind of thing that helps fantasy players win titles. Over much of the last two seasons, Span has been the best player consistently available on mixed waiver wires and I think that’s a safe bet to be the case again this year. For NL-only players, especially those with differentiated outfield slots rather than three OF slots, Span could be a good late-round value to boost batting average and give you a decent number of steals, just don’t expect him to offer much in the way of counting stats beyond steals.


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