Looking at the remaining mid-tier free-agent outfielders, Denard Span easily comes with the most upside. Span, just shy of his thirty-second birthday, has a career .287/.352/.395 line. The Florida native has completed two full seasons with an average over .300, has led the league in triples twice, hits once, and has a 30-steal season to his name. If everything plays out well for Span after his hip surgery (which comes after last winter’s abdominal surgery), he is by far a better player than other options like Gerardo Parra, Austin Jackson, and Dexter Fowler.
That’s the rub with span — his health. Span played in only 61 games last year with the Washington Nationals. His abdominal injury and recovery from it eventually affected his hips and back. Span was rushing back to help a lineup decimated by plenty of other injuries, and the move ultimately cost him most of his 2015 season. In those 61 games, however, Span was as good as ever, turning in a .301/.365/.431 line.
Had Denard Span actually been able to play out a full season in 2015, he may have recorded the best numbers of his career. Span had five home runs in only 246 at-bats. His career-high in home runs, eight, was achieved in a season with 676 at-bats. The lingering effects of the injuries clearly did not affect Span’s speed, as he stole 11 bases in 11 tries. The center fielder walked 25 times and struck out only 26 times.
Many of the teams that could have an interest in Denard Span — the Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants, and Kansas City Royals — need to feel sure they can count on him for at least 140 games in 2016. The Cubs are not likely to be serious players on Span unless they deal Jorge Soler, a move that seems unlikely at this point. The Royals may lose Alex Gordon, and need a player who can step in without fear of injury. Jarrod Dyson and Terrance Gore do not appear to be suitable everyday options on a World Series team. The Giants have real question marks in their outfield already in Angel Pagan and Gregor Blanco, two players who already have injury concerns. A player like Jackson or Parra is likely a safer option for the Giants (who should also not be ruled out for Gordon, no matter how much they have spent on starting pitching this year).
The Baltimore Orioles have also been linked to Denard Span, and may be the team that can find the associated injury risks most palatable. The Orioles brought back Nolan Reimold, traded for L.J. Hoes and Mark Trumbo, and also have young outfielders Henry Urrutia and Dariel Alvarez in the farm system. Adam Jones remains one of the best center fielders in the game. With the Orioles, Span would likely play right field, with Hyun-soo Kim in left (assuming the reported deal gets finalized).
Playing right field should cut down on the wear and tear for Span, and he can always be used to give Jones a few days off or a chance to DH here and there. The 2015 season saw Jones dinged up on multiple occasions, but the Orioles did not have a true backup center fielder to step up and spell their All-Star. Span would bring some flexibility in that regard. Would he be open to sliding out of center field into a less-prominent outfield role? At this point of his career, what should matter most to Denard Span is staying on the field.
Span certainly has familiarity with the Mid-Atlantic region, which could give the Orioles a leg-up over the other teams that may be vying for his services in the Midwest. The outfield situation has yet to be fully cleared up for the Orioles, but the team does have more suitable fallback options should Denard Span go down again than the other teams that may be pursuing him. Of the teams tied to Span, the Orioles and Royals are likely the only two who would not view him as a center fielder. The Royals have Lorenzo Cain, but need a replacement for Alex Gordon or Alex Rios.
The Orioles’ pursuit of Denard Span likely hinges on two things — the progress he has made in his rehab and the on-again-off-again pursuit of Chris Davis. At this point, it seems the Orioles will go the route of adding two or three quality players instead of sinking all of their offseason cash into one player. It would still not come as a total shocker if talks with Davis pick back up and he re-signs with the Orioles. There is just not enough interest in Davis from the rest of the league. It’s conceivable that the Orioles can still sign Davis for $22 million per year and still have enough left over to give Span $10-12 million per year. They could also sign Span, a mid-tier starter, and Pedro Alvarez to play first base. There are still a lot of moving parts in this offseason for the Orioles, and any resolution will depend on Chris Davis.
For the Orioles, however, Denard Span may be viewed differently compared to other teams. The team has not had a true leadoff hitter since Brian Roberts. Manny Machado‘s bat is needed lower in the lineup, especially if Davis leaves. There are suitable backups on the bench and in the minors should injuries dog Span again in 2016. This is the perfect risk-reward trade off, and the Orioles are one of the few teams that may actually be able to stomach the uncertainty that comes with a free-agent contract for Denard Span.