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Denard Span Rumors
With more than a fifth of the season in the books, we’ve had an early look (a peek, really) into where things may be headed on next winter’s free agent market. One of the most interesting positions to watch, in my estimation, is center field, where there are several players who had a lot to prove coming into the season.
There figure to be several clubs looking at adding new, mid-term or long-term options. The Indians, Mariners, Rangers, Athletics, Rangers, Cubs, and Padres all look like fairly good bets to at least dabble in the market at center. Depending upon how things shake out, it is not impossible to imagine that clubs like the Blue Jays, Tigers, Astros, Cardinals, and Giants could be as well.
Looking at MLBTR’s 2016 free agent list, which documents the players currently on track to qualify for the open market, a small group stands out as possible starting-caliber options. The trio is particularly interesting because they were so tightly bunched coming into the season — all looking to be solidly average to above-average performers, depending on one’s particular viewpoint. (Note: I’m not considering Colby Rasmus here because he has spent most of his time in the corner outfield this year. But he could also figure into the mix.)
Let’s see where things stand:
Value up: Denard Span, Nationals.
After missing the spring and early part of the season following core muscle surgery, Span needed more than ever to show that he could repeat last year’s excellent campaign. Things are certainly pointing up in the early going, as he owns a .316/.375/.532 slash over 88 turns at bat.
While it’s obviously unlikely that he’ll maintain that kind of power output — his current .215 ISO is more than double than his career 108 mark — Span is driving the ball consistently, as he did in 2014, while posting an impeccable strikeout-to-walk ratio. His .310 BABIP actually trails his career levels slightly, so it seems that quality contact is driving the early productivity.
Overall regression is almost certainly in store, but the early returns serve to confirm that Span is a quality top-of-the-order bat and, perhaps more importantly, that he is healthy. Span will need to keep things up in both regards after entering the year with injury questions and as the elder member (31 years of age) of the group considered in this post. Of course, he could stand to see a boost in his somewhat lagging early defensive ratings (which seem to belie the perceptions of some around the game) and his stolen base tallies, but the arrow is pointing up overall and he’s done the most to increase his stock.
Value neutral: Dexter Fowler, Cubs.
While his walks are down somewhat early, Fowlers continues to deliver solid results at the plate with a fairly typical .262/.345/.397 batting line. He has shown more at times, but that lands firmly within expectations. More promisingly, the 29-year-old has swiped eight bags already and is on pace for career highs in that arena, though he has been caught three times as well.
The major talent assessment question with Fowler is his defense in center. He has spent much of his time in tough-to-patrol outfields — Coors Field and Minute Maid Park — and rated terribly at the position last year (tallying negative 20 Defensive Runs Saved and negative 21.8 UZR on the year). That has turned around somewhat in a still-small sample this year in Chicago, with Fowler posting positive UZR marks (10.7 UZR/15) while receiving a less-glowing -3 DRS rating.
All said, the early speed and defense returns rate as good signs for Fowler, and the results at the plate have done nothing to detract from his appeal. You could argue, then, that his value is slightly on the rise. If nothing else, Fowler seems a reasonable target at center, after entering the year with the possibility that he’d be viewed more as a corner option. Some clubs may still end up seeing him that way, of course, especially as it is really too soon to draw much from defensive numbers. All said, Fowler’s value is largely holding steady at the present time.
Value down: Austin Jackson, Mariners.
Jackson looked like a nice get for the Mariners at last year’s trade deadline, but has been a significant disappointment thus far in Seattle. He just turned 28 a few months back, but 2015 has continued a troubling downturn in his overall productivity.
Over 339 plate appearances with the M’s, Jackson has put up a meager .233/.275/.280 line with two home runs. He has added a healthy 16 stolen bases over that stretch, but that’s hardly enough to offset concerns. To be sure, Jackson’s .284 BABIP is due for some positive regression — his career mark sits at .351 and he’s never ended a professional season below last year’s .325 — and his strikeout/walk numbers are in line with career norms. But he is making more weak contact than ever before while hitting more groundballs (50%) this year than is his custom.
Jackson still rates as a solid average center fielder and seems to have the legs to maintain that going forward. His current DL stint with a sprained ankle is probably not cause for any long-term concern, and may even afford him a chance to work on his difficulties if he takes a short rehab stint. But the sub-.100 ISO he has carried over this season and last has significantly reduced his appeal. There’s plenty of time for a turnaround, but Jackson is trending down at present.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
Nationals center fielder Denard Span is something of a wild card on next year’s free agent market. After battling through offseason core muscle surgery, his latest health issue, Span is somewhat quietly producing at a .292/.342/.514 clip. His power output is not likely to continue, of course, but it is good evidence that he is back to full strength and making hard contact. That’s all the more impressive given that Span has as many walks as strikeouts (six apiece) through his first 79 plate appearances. While defensive metrics continue to view Span more as an average center fielder than the very good one he used to be (and still is, in some eyes), he has a good chance of being the most appealing free agent center fielder if he can stay on the field and hit even at more typical rates — particularly since he is already coming off of a very strong 2014 campaign. As things stand, the 31-year-old seems on track to merit a qualifying offer from the Nats, which could potentially give the team four QO players (along with Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, and Ian Desmond).
- The Phillies player receiving the most concrete trade interest at this point in the season is not staff ace Cole Hamels, but veteran righty Aaron Harang, MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince reports. Indeed, Philadelphia looks to have a rather useful trade chip in Harang, who is under contract for just one year and $5MM. While he is probably unlikely to keep his walk rate under 2 per nine for the first time in his career, and may be in line for some BABIP-related regression, Harang has undeniably been excellent: through 45 1/3 innings, he owns a 2.38 ERA. Plenty of teams could use an arm like that at the back of their rotation, and Harang’s low price tag should increase competition for his services — and with it, the return for the Phils.
- Steve Cishek‘s difficulties have led the Marlins to decide on a shake-up of their ninth-inning roles, MLB.com’s Joe Frisaro reports. The club will seemingly use a mix of arms for the time being. Cishek, a 28-year-old sidearmer, inked a $6.65MM deal to avoid arbitration. With two more years of arb eligibility remaining, Cishek has lost over a tick off his average fastball and uncharacteristically walked eight batters in 11 1/3 frames. He does have plenty of time to turn things around, of course, but his hefty starting salary makes a contract tender look questionable even at this early stage.
Tapped by many as the preseason favorites to win the World Series, the Nationals have enough depth on both the Major League and minor league level that their window of contention won’t snap shut if they don’t win it all this year. That said, there is certainly a sense that the window may never be quite as open as it is now, given that four of Washington’s top players are scheduled to hit free agency this winter.
Assuming that Ian Desmond, Doug Fister, Denard Span and Jordan Zimmermann all post their usual types of seasons in 2015, all will draw a lot of attention on the open market; MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes ranks Desmond and Zimmerman fourth and sixth, respectively, in his 2016 Free Agent Power Rankings. Between interest from other teams and the Nats’ already-substantial salary commitments (over $84MM committed to just six players on their 2016 roster, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts), we can safely rule out the possibility of the Nationals bringing all four back. Indeed, some of Washington’s offseason moves seem directed at preparing for a future without some of these players, as I’ll explain momentarily.
The question is, however, will the Nationals bring back any of their free agent quartet? Let’s look at the options…
* Desmond. The shortstop reportedly rejected a seven-year, $107MM extension during the 2013-14 offseason, leading the Nats to explore acquiring a young shortstop at last summer’s trade deadline. Washington got that young shortstop in the form of Trea Turner as part of their three-team deal with the Rays and Padres over the winter, so it’s perhaps not surprising that Desmond and the Nats didn’t engage in significant extension talks, or that Desmond’s name surfaced in trade talks with the Mariners and Mets.
With all this in mind, Desmond’s days in Washington seem numbered, even if the Nationals would be letting perhaps the game’s best offensive shortstop leave.
* Zimmermann. The right-hander’s name was also linked to those talks with Seattle, and Boston also engaged the Nationals about Zimmermann’s services. Max Scherzer‘s seven-year, $210MM deal essentially could make Zimmermann expendable, as Washington doesn’t want to ink another starter to another deal in the $200MM range, especially when they’ll also have Stephen Strasburg‘s free agency to deal with after the 2016 season. (Then again, Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post recently speculated that the Nats may let both Zimmermann and Strasburg go due to concerns that their arms won’t hold up given their Tommy John histories.)
* Fister. Much of what I wrote about Zimmermann also applies to Fister, though obviously Fister’s free agent price tag will be significantly lower than Zimmerman’s next contract. The Nationals reportedly haven’t discussed an extension with Fister in about a year, so one would think they’re prepared to move on from the 31-year-old righty. That said,
* Span. The team already got a look at life without Span when the veteran outfielder began the season on the DL recovering from core muscle surgery. Top prospect Michael Taylor filled in as Washington’s center fielder and hit .271/.314/.500 in 51 plate appearances, though his defense left something to be desired. Still, Taylor performed well enough that the Nats likely feel as if they have a solid replacement on hand if Span isn’t brought back.
* None of them. As you may notice, I’ve listed several more “won’t be back” reasons than I have reasons for why the Nationals may re-sign any of the quartet. It’s quite possible Washington simply lets all four players go in order to save future payroll space for Strasburg and/or Bryce Harper‘s future extensions. The Nats would also get a boost to their minor league system, as they’d receive at least three draft picks back as compensation if their players signed elsewhere — Desmond, Zimmermann and Fister are locks to receive qualifying offers, while Span could potentially get one too if he has a big season.
That said, it would also be somewhat surprising to see a team with such clear designs on winning a championship soon let four big pieces walk. While Washington has an enviable amount of starting pitching depth, any rotation would suffer in losing two proven arms like Zimmermann or Fister. Desmond, as noted, would leave a big hole at shortstop, and counting on Taylor to replace Span might be putting a lot of pressure on a youngster. Re-signing even two of the four could be a tall order, though I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Nationals bring back one of the four.
One more wrinkle: MLBTR’s Jeff Todd recently speculated that the Nats could explore trading Zimmermann or Fister this summer in order to fill any other holes on the roster. Theoretically, this would open the door for Washington to add talent at midseason to bolster their postseason hopes, and then also allow them to possibly sign either traded pitcher in the offseason. As Jon Lester and the Red Sox might tell you, however, it’s very rare to see such a scenario play out with the traded ace immediately return to the club that dealt him away.
The Nationals activated Denard Span from the disabled list and inserted him into the starting lineup for this afternoon’s game against the Phillies, reports MLB.com’s Bill Ladson. To make room for Span on the roster, Michael Taylor was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse despite slashing .271/.314/.500 in 51 plate appearances this season. “He is one of our future players and needs to play every day,” Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said in explaining the reasoning behind Taylor’s demotion. “We got to see Michael Taylor become a player for us right in front of our eyes. I thought he handled himself brilliantly with some youthful mistakes. The ability level is there. The usefulness of putting it to a Major League setting was there and he took to it very well.”
Elsewhere in the NL East:
- The Phillies have told teams over the past year Chase Utley will not waive his no-trade clause, but ESPN’s Buster Olney writes in an Insider piece (subscription required) the second baseman, facing a long rebuild in Philadelphia, may have a change of heart like former teammate Jimmy Rollins. Olney also notes rival evaluators believe Cole Hamels wants out of Philadelphia, as well.
- Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez isn’t too concerned with Jim Johnson being roughed up in his last two appearances (four runs, six hits, and two home runs allowed) and will keep the right-hander in the role of the 8th inning setup reliever, according to David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We’ll see how it plays out,” said Gonzalez. “But from what I saw in Spring Training, and other than these two outings here, I think he’s been fine. We always have a tendency to say what’s the matter with a guy as soon as he gives up something.“
- Mets manager Terry Collins told reporters, including MLB.com’s Joe Trezza, closer Jeurys Familia will remain in that role when Bobby Parnell and Vic Black join the club after completing their rehab assignments. “Certainly, right now Jeurys Familia has pitched well enough,” Collins said. “He is that guy until those other guys show us they’re ready.” Collins adds, in a perfect world, Parnell would be the closer with Black and Familia slotted for the 8th and 7th innings, respectively. Black’s return may be delayed as Adam Rubin of ESPNNewYork.com tweets the right-hander will undergo a MRI of his shoulder/neck area.
Dodgers Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully is celebrating his 65th anniversary in the booth tonight. His first game was at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park featuring Robin Roberts against Don Newcombe. Incidentally, Roberts is also in the Hall of Fame while Newcombe is often discussed as a snub. Here’s more from around the league.
- The Blue Jays did little to address an obvious bullpen problem over the offseason, writes Mike Wilner of Sportsnet.ca. However, the club might have lucked into a valuable solution in the form of Liam Hendriks. The 26-year-old is averaging 93 mph with his fastball – up about two mph from his career norm. Through six innings, he’s allowed two hits and one walk while recording nine strikeouts. Before anybody anoints Hendriks the closer, it’s worth noting that he has a low 5.3% swinging strike rate. At some point, that rate will either increase, or his strikeout rate will decrease.
- The Nationals must learn to thrive under walk year pressure, writes Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post. When Jayson Werth entered his walk year with the Phillies, then-manager Charlie Manuel advised him to test free agency (in more colorful language). Now the Nationals have four key players on the road to free agency. Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, and Denard Span could all leave after the season, which gives 2015 a make-or-break feel for Washington. Werth and Max Scherzer have advice for their new teammates – acknowledge all the sources of pressure.
Mets third baseman David Wright injured his hamstring on a stolen base attempt in the ninth inning of tonight’s contest against the Phillies and appears DL-bound. The team has announced that Eric Campbell is on his way to New York in case a roster move needs to be made, and both ESPN New York’s Adam Rubin (link) and Newsday’s Marc Carig (link) have indicated that a trip to the DL seems inevitable. Wright will have an MRI tomorrow morning before a decision is made, but he sounds likely to join a growing list of injured Mets. Michael Cuddyer, who left tonight’s game after being hit on the hand by a pitch, sounds like he may return to the lineup as soon as tomorrow, via Rubin (on Twitter).
More NL East news as today’s games come to a close…
- Denard Span is on the comeback trail to the Nationals, as the team announced today that he began a rehab assignment at Double-A Harrisburg tonight. Span was expected to be sidelined until mid-May following core muscle surgery, but he’s ahead of schedule in his rehab. Teammate Nate McLouth also received some positive news, as an MRI showed no structural damage in his surgically repaired shoulder, tweets CSN’s Mark Zuckerman. McLouth has been cleared to resume a throwing program.
- The reworked delivery of Marlins right-hander Carter Capps has caused some controversy, as the home plate umpire in his first appearance at Triple-A this year deemed it illegal and negated his first two pitches, stating that Carter broke contact with the pitching rubber too soon. As the Miami Sun Sentinel’s Juan C. Rodriguez writes, the issue has been resolved, as the Marlins have contacted Major League Baseball to receive clarification, and Capps will be allowed to continue on with his delivery. The 24-year-old was recalled by the Marlins yesterday and made his 2015 debut with the team last night. (Those interested in seeing Capps’ delivery can check out this video from last night’s game coverage, in which the Braves commentators liken the delivery to that of former Atlanta righty Jordan Walden.)
- Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron also examined Capps’ delivery and likened it to that of Walden, though he rightly notes that Capps’ hop-step brings him even closer to the mound than Walden does. Cameron points out that it doesn’t seem that there’s anything in the rulebook’s definition of “legal pitches” that would prevent Capps from doing this. Capps has long struggled against lefties, Cameron notes, and he wonders if the change in delivery will help with that problem, as his 97 mph average velocity, released closer to the plate, will certainly make it more difficult to pick up. Cameron speculates that if Capps can have success against lefties with this type of delivery, it may not be long before some fringy relief prospects begin emulating Capps and Walden, making the delivery more common.
The Mets announced today that closer Jenrry Mejia will be placed on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to April 5, due to posterior elbow inflammation. Mejia’s injury adds another to a long list of pitching injuries for the Mets early in the season, but his injury does appear to be of the short-term variety. Jeurys Familia will step into Mejia’s spot in the closer’s role in the interim. (Fantasy players looking to stay on top of closer situations can follow MLBTR’s fantasy-focused @closernews handle on Twitter.)
Here’s more from the NL East…
- Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg explained to MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki the team’s thought process in its final roster decisions at the end of Spring Training. Signing right-hander Dustin McGowan upon his release from the Dodgers was a welcome move for Philadelphia, as they’d had interest in him earlier in the offseason before he signed in L.A. Jeff Francoeur was selected for a roster spot despite others performing better in spring because the team wanted a right-handed bat on the bench and felt that Francoeur’s clubhouse presence would benefit the young players on the roster. Cesar Hernandez was outperformed by Cord Phelps, but the Phillies wanted a shortstop on the bench, and Hernandez was out of Minor League options, paving his way to the Opening Day roster.
- Nationals center fielder Denard Span may be back from core muscle surgery sooner than expected, writes MLB.com’s Bill Ladson. Span has already begun performing hard sprint drills and has played defense in a pair of Minor League games. Span tells Ladson that he he thinks he could potentially return to the lineup before the calendar flips to May, potentially putting him about two weeks ahead of schedule.
- Freddie Freeman was among the Braves players to speak to MLB.com’s Mark Bowman about the difficulty of losing Craig Kimbrel as a teammate following Kimbrel’s trade to the Padres. “He got sent down from High A to Low A, and then all of the sudden became Craig Kimbrel,” Freeman reminisced. “It’s the craziest thing. When a guy gets traded, you think about all those stories in the Minor Leagues. … It’s definitely tough seeing him go. But I think everybody’s mentality in this clubhouse is to prove everybody wrong.” Manager Fredi Gonzalez said he felt the players handled the news well, and veteran Jonny Gomes worked to make sure that the trade wasn’t something dwelled upon as the team geared up for Opening Day, Bowman adds.
The Nationals announced today that closer Drew Storen underwent surgery to remove the hook of the hamate bone in his left hand (Twitter links). Storen, a right-handed thrower, will be down for about two or three days before resuming his throwing program and is expected to be ready for Opening Day, however, according to the Nats.
A bit more on the Nationals and their division…
- Injured Nationals center fielder Denard Span tells Bill Ladson of MLB.com that he began to feel pain in his abdomen about six to seven weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a sports hernia in December. However, Span says he had both good days and “so-so” days an expected that the pain would eventually go away. Instead, of course, Span underwent core muscle surgery earlier this week and will now “optimistically” be back in the lineup by May, writes Ladson, indicating a fairly significant DL stint for the free-agent-to-be. However, Span says that he’s more disappointed to be missing part of a season where the Nationals could make a run at the World Series than to be injured in a contract year. “This is probably the last year this ballclub has a chance to be together,” Span tells Ladson. “We have a chance to do something special. That hurts more than the fact that I’m going to be a free agent.” Span and teammates Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond and Doug Fister will all be free agents next winter.
- Joel Sherman of the New York Post questions the persistent claims of Mets GM Sandy Alderson when he says he has the financial flexibility to make roster moves as needed. As Sherman points out, the Mets didn’t invest any guaranteed money in left-handed relief pitching this winter, and they’re now facing the possibility of losing their top lefty reliever, Josh Edgin, to Tommy John surgery. Alderson told Sherman that the financial requests of the available left-handed relievers this winter didn’t match up with their quality, but he’ll have financial flexibility to add to the roster this season if the Mets are contending.
- Phillies lefty Cliff Lee threw again today and said he still felt discomfort in his left elbow, writes MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki. Lee is trying to pitch through a torn flexor tendon in his elbow but will have to opt for season-ending surgery if some of the discomfort does not eventually dissipate.
- Meanwhile, Zolecki adds that offseason signee Aaron Harang was scratched from his upcoming start due to lower back discomfort. Manager Ryne Sandberg said he’s not worried and called it a “muscular thing,” but this is the second time Harang has been scratched for a back issue this spring. The Phillies will need a healthy Harang given their thin rotation depth. The veteran signed a one-year, $5MM contract with Philadelphia this offseason.
In the course of a broader post, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reported several opt-out dates for veteran Braves pitchers in camp on minor league deals. Lefty Eric Stults can exercise his clause on April 3, just prior to Opening Day, while Chien-Ming Wang does not have the right to make himself a free agent until July 1.
Here’s more from Atlanta and the rest of the NL East:
- Though the Braves have had plenty of discussion with the representatives for Hector Olivera, the club is indicating that it will not spend a “huge” amount of money for the free agent infielder, David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution tweets.
- The Nationals will face an early-season challenge now that center fielder Denard Span is set to miss significant time after undergoing surgery for a “right core muscle” injury, as Chelsea James of the Washington Post reports. A “league medical official” tells James that the surgery is particularly concerning since it comes right on the heels of a December sports hernia procedure. The immediate effect of the injury is to provide a full-time audition for prospect Michael Taylor. Depending upon how it proceeds, it could impact Washington’s trade deadline needs and Span’s upcoming free agency.
- Yankees starter CC Sabathia tells MLB Network Radio (audio link) that he is at “one hundred percent” health at this point. He expects his next outing to be live game action after throwing a simulated game today. Sabathia is just one of several high-variable starting pitchers in the New York stable. His ability to bounce back this year will go a long way not only towards determining the club’s short-term success, but also toward assessing the value the team can hope to return out of the $30MM in guaranteed money (and potential for $20MM more through a vesting clause) left on Sabathia’s deal.
8:54am: Span won’t resume baseball activities for four to six weeks, manager Matt Williams told reporters, including Janes (Twitter link). Taylor will see the bulk of playing time in center field this spring in his absence.
7:33am: The Nationals announced on Monday that center fielder Denard Span underwent surgery to repair a right core muscle injury (Twitter link). The recovery timeframe for this surgery can sometimes be as short as a month — Brett Gardner had a similar procedure in October and had a four-week recovery period, per ESPN New York’s Andrew Marchand — so it’s possible that Span would be in game shape by about Opening Day. Others, such as Justin Verlander, who had the surgery prior to the 2014 season, had a six week recovery period (via MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian).
Even if Span were to be in game shape in four weeks, I’d imagine he’d still open the season on the DL, as he’d need some time to get up to speed in Triple-A after missing virtually all of Spring Training. Span had already undergone surgery this offseason to repair a sports hernia, tweets Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post, who adds that Span showed no noticeable ill effects from the operation in an 0-for-2 performance in the spring opener against the Mets.
The 31-year-old Span is entering his third season as the Nationals’ center fielder after being acquired from the Twins in a swap for top prospect Alex Meyer. He’s enjoyed a pair of very nice seasons in D.C., particularly last year, when he hit .302/.355/.416 with five homers, 31 steals and a National-League-leading 184 hits.
In addition to hoping for a quick recovery to help the Nationals, who are considered by most to be favorites in the NL East, Span has personal motivation to get back on the field soon as well. He’s slated to hit the free agent market next winter for the first time in his career. Span originally signed a five-year, $16.5MM extension with the Twins, and the Nats made the easy call to exercise his $9MM option for the 2015 season this winter. He’ll be in competition with younger options such as Dexter Fowler, Austin Jackson and Colby Rasmus on next year’s free agent market.
If Span is indeed unable to open the season with the team, the Nationals have some options. Nate McLouth and top prospect Michael Taylor are both on the 40-man roster. McLouth himself may not be ready, as Janes wrote in this morning’s Post that he is still recovering from right shoulder surgery and has yet to see game action this spring, although he is close. As far as non-roster invitees go, Tony Gwynn Jr. is an excellent defender and could be leaned upon to help bridge the gap if necessary. Keep in mind, too, that the Nats are also waiting on Jayson Werth to recovery from early January shoulder surgery, so two of their three projected starters in the outfield may not be ready to kick off the season.