In a game as unpredictable as baseball, it only takes a few good games to turn around what is shaping up to be a lousy season. Nobody knows this better than Washington Nationals center fielder Denard Span.
Span was expected to do big things for the Nationals in 2013, but like most of the team, he got off to a slow start. The left-handed hitting center fielder had a .258 batting average and .310 on-base percentage on August 16. Span had difficulty hitting left-handed pitchers and his poor performance caused him to lose the lead off spot for a few weeks.
For several months, it seemed like 2013 was shaping up to be the worst season of the 29-year-old Span’s career. But like all of his teammates, Span put it together late in the season and quickly turned things around.
Over the last 39 games of the season, Span posted a .338/.375/.459 line, reestablishing himself as the team’s lead off hitter. Span’s impressive finish culminated in a career high 29-game hit streak that seemed to ignite the rest of the team’s offense for the remainder of the season.
While Span is obviously disappointed with the way he started the season, he is glad that he was able to finish strong and is looking forward to carrying that momentum into 2014.
“Even though I still know that I can play at that level for longer than a month and a half,” Span told Federal Baseball reporters at NatsFest on Saturday, “it was a little bit easier going into the offseason, but like I said, I’m just concentrating on being consistent like that for the course of the season. I look at it, I played good for a month of the season last year and how I finished, if I can do that for an extended period of time, I think it will be a good summer for myself and my teammates.”
Span is not the only one who believes he can do better in 2014, as manager Matt Williams has already reached out to him on ways he can improve.
“We had a short conversation down in Orlando at the Winter Meetings,” Span continued, “and he told me that he wanted me to be more aggressive on the bases. He said he wanted me to run more and I like that.”
As he showed every night last season with his ability to track down balls everywhere in the outfield, Span is fast. Despite his speed, the Nationals’ lead off hitter had some trouble on the base paths last season, stealing just 20 bases in 26 attempts. Twenty stolen bases is no small achievement by any means, but given Span’s speed, he can definitely do better. And with some practice this offseason, Span is confident that he will be able to steal more bases in 2014.
“I haven’t been as successful stealing bases in my career,” Span said, “but that’s something that every day I strive to get better at and I will get better. I’ll get more than 20 this year, I’ll tell you that. I’ve studied film. I’ve studied some Rickey Henderson film. Some Vince Coleman film. I’ve got a speed coach, obviously, that I work out with every offseason. But I’ve been doing a lot of biometrics, a lot of explosive stuff, and just trying to improve in any way I can. Work on reaction time, little drills, stuff like that so, hopefully, I’m confident that that is going to translate over onto the field.”
While Span was busy trying to improve his running game, Nationals fans were wondering if their center fielder was going to be back for a second year with the team in 2014. Span has been involved in trade rumors throughout his career and this offseason was no different. Despite the uncertainty surrounding his future in DC, Span remained focused on the only thing that really matters: getting ready for 2014.
“I don’t know what my future holds with the Nationals,” Span told Federal Baseball reporters at NatsFest. “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’s my will to be here, this is where I want to be. I’m just looking forward to going out this year and building off my last month and a half of the season and just doing bigger and better things. I’m excited.”
It’s hard to tell what would have happened if Span hadn’t been able to turn his season around. Considering that the Nationals gave up a top-prospect in Alex Meyer to acquire him from the Twins last winter, a lousy season could have been disastrous for Span, the Nationals and general manager Mike Rizzo.
Fortunately, Span turned things around late in the year and he seems poised to help lead the Nationals on their path to the playoffs in 2014. If Span has in fact improved his running game and manages to play at the level he played at for the last month of 2013, he will be a major asset for the Nationals at the top of the order.