The trade and free agent markets are flush with competent centerfielders this offseason. While Josh Hamilton and Michael Bourn are the marquee free agents, the second, third and even fourth tiers of conceivably available centerfielders features players capable of starting for many teams.
B.J. Upton is the most frequently mentioned player after Hamilton and Bourn. Angel Pagan — perhaps the most underrated player in the game — has also garnered plenty of attention in recent weeks. Before getting traded to Oakland, Chris Young was gaining recognition as a potential trade target, and his arrival could put Coco Crisp back on the market. The Angels’ Peter Bourjos plays the position better than mostly everyone in baseball, but he’s blocked by perhaps the best player in the game. Shane Victorino presents an interesting case — as one of the best all-around players at the position — but one who is getting older and coming off of one of his worst seasons.
Denard Span isn’t discussed as much as a potential trade target, but he combines some of the best attributes of everyone mentioned above: He fields the position terrifically, he’s a very good baserunner, he has a high career walk rate and a wRC+ 5% better than the league. He’s also signed to a team-friendly contract.
There’s certainly risk in acquiring him — his health has been questionable during the last two seasons — and the Twins will surely look to bring back a significant haul. But he’s also an underrated player, and he represents the type of cost-effective option teams wary of the Hamilton’s, Bourn’s and Upton’s should seriously pursue.
Span has played in just 198 games over the last two seasons. He missed most of the 2011 season with a recurring case of vertigo brought about by a previous concussion. He spent time on the shelf this past season with a shoulder injury. An initial MRI on his shoulder was delayed due to his claustrophobia, and his injury followed a common theme with former trainer Rick McWane: Span was disabled for over a week before the team actually placed him on the disabled list. When healthy, he is a heck of a baseball player, but he simply hasn’t been on the field as often as many of the other available centerfielders.
Span has a career 105 wRC+ and .332 wOBA. He averages a +5 fielding rating and a +3 baserunning mark per season. His career walk rate is just shy of 10%, and he only strikes out 12% of the time. Span is fast, athletic, patient, productive and inexpensive.
Throughout his five major league seasons he has averaged 3.2 WAR. That figure rises to right around 4 WAR when scaled to 150 games. Health is a concern, but the talent is obvious, and he is more than worth his contract even if he misses half of the season. That’s clearly not an ideal scenario, but he has still tallied over 2 WAR in his injury-shortened seasons. Heading into his age-29, season, Span’s value has rebounded after a strong campaign. He hit .283/.342/.395 last season, with a 105 wRC+, .325 wOBA, +9 Fld and +3 BsR. His 3.9 WAR marked a return to his pre-injury productivity and helped calm concerns that he was turning into a perpetually-injured player.
He makes $4.75 million next season, $6.5 million in 2014, and has a $9 million option for 2015 that has a $0.5 million buyout clause. At the minimum, the Twins or an acquiring team are on the hook for two years and $11.75 million. At the most, Span is signed for three years and $20.25 million, an average annual value of slightly less than $7 million for a player with a floor of 2.5 WAR and a likely ceiling in the 4-4.5 WAR range.
His contract isn’t comparable to standard free agent deals, because he signed his five-year pact before becoming arbitration-eligible, but the rates are still very reasonable relative to his actual and potential production.
It’s impossible to truly gauge his value, especially now, without comparing him to his up-the-middle colleagues. Health has limited his action since 2011, but he still proves comparable to Bourn over the last two seasons. Bourn has played in 313 games and has a .325 wOBA, 104 wRC+ and +16 Fld. Span, in 198 games, has a .319 wOBA, 100 wRC+ and +17.5 Fld. Bourn has him bested on the basepaths, and has provided more value, but the difference between the two isn’t so severe that one is worth upwards of $80 million over five years while the other is mentioned after the fact as a possible trade target.
Looking solely at the last two years eliminates some of Span’s more productive seasons, but comparing him to other centerfielders throughout the course of his five-year career sheds more light on his value:
Span has played in by far the fewest games, yet fares favorably in the rate categories, has the 2nd-highest fielding rating — a counting stat — and it’s easy to see that he would have finished with more WAR had he stayed on the field. He hasn’t, which is one of the reasons the Twins may be more interested in selling him, especially after a very solid 2012 season.
Many of the players mentioned more frequently then Span are better than him, for one reason or another, with health as one of the primary reasons. However, his numbers are comparable to several others available on the market, and he’ll likely cost much less in terms of dollars or the value of prospects surrendered to acquire him. Some team is going to ink Bourn to a very lucrative contract and Upton will probably sign for at least $52 million over four years. Span could come close to matching their overall production for a solid prospect or two and $11.25 million. He isn’t the most popular name on the market, but he has the potential to provide a team with the most bang for their buck.