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Holden & Danny: Nationals Outfield in Elite Company With Addition of Denard Span

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Denard Span prepares to catch a ball hit by Johnny Giavotella. (Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

Denard Span prepares to catch a ball hit by Johnny Giavotella. (Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

Holden & Danny Holden Kushner and Danny Rouhier
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When the Washington Nationals traded away top-notch pitching prospect Alex Meyer to Minnesota, they got in return more than just the defensive-minded center fielder the franchise had been missing since 2005: they acquired a base runner with blinding speed and a legitimate leadoff hitter in Denard Span.

And Mike Rizzo – who’s had his eyes on Span for two years, and almost pulled the trigger on a deal at the deadline in 2011 to bring him in at the cost of closer Drew Storen – got him at a bargain rate of just $11.25 million for the next two years.

Span addressed those rumors of past almost-dealings and what his position in this lineup allows him to bring to the Nationals in 2013 in an appearance with Danny Rouhier on 106.7 The Fan on Wednesday.

“My game is first and foremost to bring good defense,” Span said. “I pride myself in catching the ball, trying to make exciting plays and to get the fans into it and help lift our starting pitcher. Secondly, is to be the best leadoff hitter I can possibly be and set the tone for my teammates.”

Span is indeed an excellent fielder and, perhaps, an even better leadoff hitter, something that has eluded Mike Rizzo in his tenure as the Nationals General Manager.

“My job, especially now coming to the National League, I mean, I don’t know any of these pitchers that I’m going to be facing,” he told Danny Rouhier. “Usually when I go up there and lead a game off, if I don’t know a guy, I try to see some pitches as much as possible.”

Nats fans will be excited to hear he is – by definition of a leadoff hitter – selective; meaning he sees a lot of pitches and strikes out seldom. In five seasons with the Twins, Span boasts .357 on-base-percentage while striking out just 321 times through 2,354 at-bats. As a point of reference on the other end of the spectrum, Adam Dunn struck out in 199 of his 558 plate appearances for Washington in 2010 alone.

“I don’t mind hitting with two strikes. My first at bat, if I don’t get on base but still see five to six pitches and come back to the dugout and tell my teammates what his ball is moving or what he’s trying to do, my job is accomplished with my first at-bat.”

A career .284 hitter, Span saw a sizeable drop in numbers in 2011, easily attributed to the devastating concussion he suffered in a vicious home-plate collision that forced him to miss 91 games. He told Danny Rouhier the symptoms would go away, and return, go away, and return, and really taught him to appreciate the gift of mental health.

“Dealing with a concussion was definitely challenging for me in 2011. When you have a brain injury, it changes the whole dynamic of everything. Your brain is working a little bit slower. This is the first time I realized that the brain is very powerful. If your brain isn’t working right, then the rest of your body isn’t working right as well.”

Fully healthy, his production returned to a more normal level for him in 2012 with a .283 average and .342 on-base-percentage. One thing fans shouldn’t expect is for the ball to fly off his bat. He’s hit just 23 home runs in his Major League career and accurately explained to Rouhier that at the plate, he aims to spray the ball in the gaps for doubles and triples; a tactic that led to him posting a career-high 38 doubles in just 128 games in 2012.

But something he would like to improve upon is utilizing the speed he possesses, which he was asked about.

“That’s been something I’ve been working on more than anybody probably knows is to be more of a threat on the bases,” Span said. “It will only help the team to have me at second or third base with the meat of the lineup coming up.”

From 2009 through 2012 respectively, – keeping in mind the shortened 2011 season – he stole 23, 26, 6 and 17 bases, and says in 2013, he’d like to finally go for 30.

All in all, Span came off as elated to join a Washington Nationals organization that posted a franchise-best 98 wins in 2012; more so than what’s called for a guy playing for a new team as the result of a trade out of his control.

“The last two years there have been rumors that I was supposed to get traded to Washington and for it to actually finally become reality after two years of them trying to do it, it’s definitely a great feeling to be coming to an organization like this and an organization that plays to win.”

Span also spoke of his exuberance to fill out what could be one of Major League Baseball’s premier outfields in 2013, splitting the middle between former All-Stars Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper.

“This is probably going to be the best outfield that I’ve played in in my career.”

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