In his first season in Washington and in the National League, Denard Span did his finest work over the final month and half of the season as the Nationals surged into playoff contention but fell short. Span had baseball’s longest hitting streak last season, a 29-game torrent in which the Nationals went 22-7. Span raised his first-half batting average from .263 to as high as .284 during the streak. Those final weeks of the season have given Span resolve this offseason.
“I know that I can play at that level longer than a month and a half,” he said recently at NatsFest. “It was a little better going into the offseason. I’m just concentrating on being consistent like that. … If I can do that for an extended period of time, I think it’ll be a good season for myself and my teammates.”
After feeling uncomfortable with his swing and stance most of the season, Span found a groove. The center fielder worked well with hitting coach Rick Schu. Throughout his offensive struggles, his defense remained stellar; he was a Gold Glove finalist. After being dropped from the leadoff spot during the summer and rested often against left-handers, Span’s confidence returned. Pitchers attacked him differently than in the past, and once he swung more at first-pitch fastballs, he succeeded. He believes he can bottle up all the positives and replicate them this season. And feeling more comfortable with his teammates, the organization and the National League can certainly help.
“I think confidence is something that can carry over as well as the opposite of that confidence,” he said. “It kind of can go hand in hand.”
Span will also factor heavily into Manager Matt Williams’ new philosophy for the Nationals. Williams wants to be aggressive on the base paths and in the field with defensive shifting. For all of his agility and speed in the field, Span isn’t as a strong a baserunner as appears. One of his biggest goals last season was to improve as a base stealer and he swiped only 20 bases in 26 tries. According to FanGraphs.com’s baserunning metric (BsR), Ian Desmond (3.3 BsR) and Ryan Zimmerman (2.8 BsR) were better baserunners than Span (2.4 BsR) in 2013. Williams told Span at the Winter Meetings in December in Orlando to be prepared for more running.
“I like that,” Span said. “That’s what I want to do. I haven’t been as successful stealing bases in my career. But that’s something that every day I strive to get better at. I will get better. I’ll get more than 20 this year. I tell you that. As far as shifting, I’m fine with that. We haven’t talked too much about that. In Minnesota we did a lot of shifting on our own. I’m okay with both of those things.”
Span has continued to work on his speed and baserunning this offseason. He has studied some video of Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman, and has a speed coach that works with him every winter.
“I’ve been doing a lot of plyometrics, a lot of explosive stuff,” he said. “Just trying to improve in any way I can. Just working on reaction time, drills, stuff like that. I’m confident it’s going to translate over to the field.”
Entering his final guaranteed season with the Nationals, Span is unconcerned with what may come. He is owed $6.5 million this season and the Nationals hold a $9 million option for 2015 that can be bought out for $500,000. As the roster is constructed now, a likely scenario has the Nationals exercising that option, but that decision doesn’t have to be made until much later. Span, however, would like to remain here.
“I don’t know what my future holds with the Nationals,” Span said. “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 is my will to be here, this is where I want to be. Looking forward to going out this year and building off my last month and a half of the season, just doing bigger and better things. I’m excited.”