When the Rays did the unthinkable and traded the face of the franchise, it looked like a play for financial relief, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Alongside the return of infield prospect Christian Arroyo came the expiring contract of Denard Span.
A former defensive great outfielder, the 33-year old veteran is owed 11 million in 2018 with a mutual option in 2019, off-setting any financial relief in the near term.
The Rays may have only taken this financial commitment on to facilitate the Longoria deal, and could be hoping to flip Span accordingly, but what if they intend to keep Span?
Better yet, what if his acquisition was targeted? Does Span add value to the 2018 Tampa Bay Rays?
What’s good about 2018 Span?
At first glance, his offensive numbers from 2017 may not look great. But Span can still be a productive hitter against right-handed pitchers. In 391 AB’s vs. RHP’s, Span slashed .284/.339/.465 with a .343 wOBA and 113 wRC+. Hitting right-handed pitching has been an area the Rays have struggled in past years, so Span’s career 110 wRC+ vs. RHP’s should help in that department.
The most encouraging number, in my opinion, is the .339 on-base percentage against righties. For a team who ranked 22nd in OBP a season ago, Span’s ability (career .352 OBP vs. RHP’s) to get on base at an above league-average level would be a nice boost to the Rays offense and may give them a dynamite leadoff hitter.
Span is also a bit of a speed demon. In his career he’s never had less than double-digit steals in a season, and has averaged 12 steals per year since 2015. Given manager Kevin Cash’s desire to have a speed oriented offense, Span is not a step back, even if he is aging.
While the Rays need Span to produce in the lineup, they also need another leader in the clubhouse. This is another area where Span can help, especially after trading clubhouse-leader Evan Longoria this off-season. Span could certainly help fill that role, mentoring young outfielders such as Mallex Smith and Jake Bauers.
What’s bad about 2018 Span?
Span is as bad at hitting lefties as he is good at hitting righties. Failing to reach 60 wRC+ vs. LHP’s the past two seasons, he simply has no place in the lineup against southpaws. Last season, he struck out at the worst clip of his career since his sophomore season in 2009 and walked less in 2017 than in any point of his career.
Defensively, Span has been in a downward spiral since the 2012 season, in which he put up 19 DRS for the Twins. Since then, the season totals have come in at 3, -2, -10, -7, and the albatross of a year he had in 2017 with -27, all with Span playing center field. He hasn’t played a position besides center field since the 2009 season.
That being said, Span will play left field for the Rays and benefit from having defensive superstar Kevin Kiermaier play beside him in center, compensating for any lost range he may have experienced in 2017.
Furthermore, if we go by the stated previous examples of center fielders making the switch to left field, we can conclude that Span should improve his disastrous defensive numbers from a year ago.
Here’s one great example: in 2012, the Oakland Athletics tried to play Yoenis Cespedes in center field, only to realize he was not fit for the job. He played 432 innings in center that year, finishing with a -7 DRS. In 468.2 innings in left field that same season, Cespedes accrued 1 DRS. In Cespedes’ six-year career, he has accumulated 36 DRS in 4,564.1 innings in left field and -23 DRS in 1407.2 innings in right field.
It’s not a perfect comparison — Cespedes is a year younger, and Span maintained his center fielder abilities through 2016 — but it is an illustrative example.
Best and Worst-Case Scenarios for 2018
Best-case scenario: Span molds into leadoff hitter Rays need vs. RHP’s, slashes .280/.335/.450 with at/or above 110 wRC+. He mans left field and performs adequately with Kiermaier by his side. In addition, he provides speed on the base paths, stealing for 12+ bases.
Worst-case scenario: It turns out that regardless of the position, Span’s has lost his value defensively. The Rays swap Span for Dickerson at DH, but he fails to adjust not playing the field and his offensive numbers consequently take a dip. This leaves the Rays with an inadequate bench player, who so happens to make the most money on the team.
The Rays are probably looking for anyone willing to take Span off their hands before the start of the season, but if they’re not able to find any takers, starting the season with Tampa native Denard Span in left field could potentially play to their favor.