The Baltimore Orioles played most of the entire 2015 season with replacement level players in left and right field. That’s what happens when you enter the season on the heels of a winter in which home run champ Nelson Cruz and former All-Star Nick Markakis walk, and are replaced with Travis Snider and Alejandro De Aza. The Orioles have their work cut out for them this winter, with a long list of free agents to either sign or replace. Finding another everday player to slot in one of the corners next to Adam Jones must be a priority if the Orioles are to continue contending.
The Orioles will not be able to sign two outfielders, and they may not have to. Former top prospect Nolan Reimold played very well down the stretch in September, and is still under team control. Look for Reimold to be brought back and given more consistent playing time. Reimold is suited for left field. That leaves right field to fill, and there is a player who has been suiting up in the Orioles backyard for the past three years that could be a great fit for Baltimore.
Admittedly, Denard Span comes with some risks for the Orioles. The 31-year-old centerfielder played in only 61 games last year for the Washington Nationals due to abdominal and hip injuries. Span went under the knife for abdominal surgery during the 2015 offseason, and was never right. In those 61 games, however, Span was still a force, posting a .301/.365/.431 line with nearly as many walks as strikeouts. For his career, Span is a .287/.352/.395 slasher who led the National League in hits in 2014, and has twice led his league in triples.
The Orioles utilized Manny Machado in the leadoff role for most of 2015, but the goal should be to move him out of that slot and into the three-hole. Machado’s offensive production is needed in the heart of the order. Span would be an excellent fit for the Orioles if they are willing to take the risk on his injuries being in the past. The Orioles tried to catch lightening in a bottle when they traded for Gerardo Parra, who was playing way over his head to start the year. Parra’s .330 batting average turned into a .230 batting average as soon as the Orioles traded for him. Retaining Parra could be an option for the Orioles, but Span provides much more offensive upside.
If Span comes with a qualifying offer, the Orioles could be even better-positioned to make a run at him. Few teams may be willing to surrender a draft pick to sign a player over the age of 30 with a checkered injury history. The Orioles are in a unique position, because they will likely lose at least two players with qualifying offers — Matt Wieters and Wei-Yin Chen. Having the draft picks that will come from that pair in their back pocket could allow the Orioles to be more aggressive on the free-agent market.
As far as Span’s health is concerned, the Orioles could play him in right to cut down on some of the wear and tear on his body. It was not the initial injury that kept Span on the DL most of the year, but rather the effects of rushing back. Compensating slightly for weakness in his core muscles put excess strain on Span’s hips. The hips and core all work together, and one minor inefficient movement can throw everything off.
Given a full year to recover from his core surgery and its after-effects, Denard Span should be fully healthy in 2016. Despite the fact that he has never made an All-Star team in his career, Span is an excellent, consistent player. He is the type of player who would fit well atop the Orioles lineup. Span has decent power, and has shown a good ability to reach base. The Orioles were unwilling to take a chance on Nick Markakis last winter due to injury concerns, and it came back to bite them all year. If the Orioles want to continue contending, risks will have to be taken, and Denard Span is a risk worth taking.