Heading into the year, it looked like the Nationals would have four fairly obvious qualifying offer recipients: Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Doug Fister, and Denard Span. It’s reflective of the team’s overall struggles that only the first of these is a complete slam dunk to receive one now. Despite his forgettable year, Desmond still seems fully worthy as well. But it’s hard to see Fister getting the offer, as $15.8MM for one year probably outstrips his current value on the market.
So what about Span? The center fielder delivered exactly what the Nationals hoped for when they shipped out Alex Meyer to acquire him from the Twins before the 2013 season. He was solid in his first season in D.C. and excellent in 2014, when he slashed .302/.355/.416 and swiped 31 bags over 668 plate appearances. Defensive metrics soured on him somewhat in the second of those campaigns, but he provided outstanding value on his reasonably-priced contract.
This year was more of the same — .301/.365/.431 — but with one glaring exception: Span made only 275 trips to the batter’s box. He recovered quickly enough from offseason sports hernia surgery, missing only about two weeks to start the year. But back and abdominal issues cropped up in the middle of the year, giving way to hip problems, and a late comeback bid proved fleeting. The 31-year-old underwent a hip procedure, ending his season.
The first issue, then, is simply one of health. It’s unclear exactly what kind of recovery timeline should be expected, though certainly we’ve heard no indication that he won’t be ready for the spring. And Span himself recently tweeted that his recovery is progressing well. Regardless of the immediate prognosis, though, there’s some legitimate concern here. The fact that Span struggled with concussions earlier in his career does not help the situation.
While questions about Span’s ability to stay on the field in 2016 do limit his immediate value, though, the bulk of that concern lies in his long-term outlook for teams weighing a multi-year deal. A qualifying offer, of course, only represents a one-year commitment (if accepted), which limits the risk.
True, Span’s health will impact the market assessment that he and his representatives would make in weighing a qualifying offer — i.e., if they don’t foresee an attractive multi-year deal, the QO becomes more attractive. But so long as he remains on track for a more-or-less full 2016 season, Span still seems like an excellent candidate to land a rather high-dollar, multi-year deal in free agency. He and Dexter Fowler arguably represent the only everyday regular center fielders on the market, with Colby Rasmus and Austin Jackson making up their competition.
There’s an argument to be made, then, that the Nats have little risk in extending the QO. There’s no reason not to pick up a draft pick if he’s destined to decline. And we’ve yet to see a single player accept one — even the aging Michael Cuddyer, who declined his offer last year from the Rockies despite coming off of a similarly injury-plagued season. Even if Span did take the $15.8MM, moreover, that might not be a bad result for Washington. Jayson Werth struggled with injuries of his own last year, and Michael Taylor — the presumptive replacement in center — showed both promise and a proclivity to strike out. Both hit from the right side, unlike Span. A left-handed outfielder capable of playing center is a clear target for the Nats, and keeping Span on a one-year commitment (even at that rate) would meet that need and then some. Bringing Taylor on slowly, holding down his arbitration earning power, and limiting the wear and tear on Werth would be nice side benefits.
Of course, there’s a counter-argument to be made here, too. The Nationals have had their share of injury issues over the last several years, and have not always managed to cope when key players went down. And some might disagree that Span would likely turn down the offer; there’s little chance he’ll reach that guarantee over multiple years, and it’s hard to predict how his market would play out — especially if he’s saddled with draft compensation. Is it too great a risk to the club to dangle that much money to an arguably injury-prone player?
Let’s put this one to an up-or-down vote: