VIERA, Fla. — Off to one side of the batting cage set up on Field 2 at the minor league complex near Space Coast Stadium, Denard Span sat on a bucket of baseballs and chatted with Bryce Harper. Span soon jumped into the cage and, with Manager Matt Williams throwing batting practice, sprayed a handful of balls around the field. Hitting coach Rick Schu clapped his hands in delight. After that initial round of swings, Span sauntered over to the golf cart and had a chat with General Manager Mike Rizzo and principal owner Mark Lerner.
On an overcast Wednesday afternoon, Span was at ease and at home.
A year ago, the Washington Nationals’ new center fielder couldn’t even find his way to Viera. He got lost, and his GPS device took him on a longer route. In his second season with the Nationals, Span is no longer the new guy on the team and in the National League. He knows everyone. He is happy to report he had no issue on his drive to spring training this February. After a subpar first half in 2013, he turned into a hitting machine and looked like the player for whom the Nationals had traded their top pitching prospect last winter. Span hopes that his confidence and comfort — with his team, league and swing — will show on the field.
“I know everybody, and everybody is familiar with me as well,” he said, seated at his locker following Wednesday’s workouts. “Compared to last year, when I came in, I was new from just the way spring training was run and trying to get to know everybody from the clubhouse guys to the coaching staff to my teammates.”
Span finished his first season in Washington with a .279 batting average, a .327 on-base percentage, a .380 slugging percentage and a 94 OPS+, which adjusts for the ballparks — all below his career averages with Minnesota. His defense was stellar — he was a Gold Glove finalist and made difficult plays looks effortless — but his base running and offense weren’t as consistent as he hoped.
During his offseason preparation, Span focused on what worked during his second-half surge. His mother urged him in August to swing more at first-pitch strikes, and when he did he succeeded. He had a 29-game hitting streak from late August to September that raised his batting average 21 points to .284. The Nationals’ offense improved, and the team went 22-7 during the streak. On his iPad, Span has video of every one of his 170 hits in 2013, but he watched the ones in the final month and a half repeatedly. As he hit in the batting cage this winters, he visualized the successes of the second half.
“It’s all mental, all psychology,” he said. “From the mental things I would say to myself before the games, I’m just trying to have those same thoughts as I was working this offseason.”
Span isn’t one to talk much about his swing mechanics, but he noted he is crouched slightly lower than last year. And before he swings, his hands aren’t static but rocking. Span’s swings are more fluid and less jerky than before.
Between rounds in the batting cage Wednesday, Schu and Span tossed the word “flow” around often, a simpler variation of the “fluiditity” term Schu used with Span late last season. Span tries not to overthink what he is doing with his swing, but he focuses on feel. And right now, his swing feels good.
“I’m not doing everything I did at the end of last season, but the majority of the stuff is when I finished off the season,” he said. “It’s about being on time and just having my hands and lower body being in sync with the rhythm and flow.”
Williams has talked with Schu about Span’s swing and approach and agrees Span looks comfortable now.
“Last year, especially early when he came over, he looked like he was a two-piece hitter,” Williams said. “So he would get his foot down really early, then explode from there. Rick’s been working with him about letting it flow. It’s a little bit more of a subtle movement instead of getting it down early and then moving his hands. He’s working on having that flow. He looks good.”
This season is the final guaranteed year in Span’s contract. Span, who turns 30 on Thursday, is due $6.5 million this season, and the Nationals hold a $9 million team option for 2015. If they choose not to exercise the option, the Nationals owe Span $500,000. The Nationals aren’t expected to make a decision on the option until late in the season or likely after it ends.
Span has said he “fell in love" with the Nationals and Washington and would like to stay. A potential scenario has the Nationals picking up Span’s option while the organization’s outfield prospects continue to develop. Paying Span $9 million in 2015, when he will be 31, could be a relative bargain. The New York Yankees’ 30-year-old center fielder, Brett Gardner, is also a strong defender and recently agreed to a four-year, $52 million extension. Span’s career OPS+ is 102, while Gardner’s is 97. But Span’s future in Washington will hinge in large part on his 2014 season. His comfort with his surroundings could help his case.
“I think Denard is comfortable now with the National League,” Williams said. “I think there’s an adjustment period that happens to every player. I think we saw that in the second half last year. He figured out the guys that he’s facing on an everyday basis. He started to gain an idea of what they’re trying to do to get him out. He had more success. I think that will continue.”