When Denard Span came off the disabled list on Tuesday, it marked the first time all season that Nationals manager Matt Williams could call upon the team's intended starters at every position. Alas, he only got to do so two times before Span was sidelined again. After it became apparent on Thursday night that he would head to the disabled list for the third time this year, the Washington Post reported on Friday that the 31-year-old centerfielder will undergo season-ending surgery to repair the labrum of his left hip on Tuesday.
Span has been among the underachieving Nationals’ most productive players, at least at the plate. His .301/.365/.431 line translates to a 117 OPS+, his best since his ‘08 rookie campaign, and second-best on the team, behind NL leader Bryce Harper's 197 (all stats through Thursday). He's played in just 61 games, however. Following surgery to repair a sports hernia on his left side in December, he needed a second core muscle surgery in March, this time on the right side, which forced him to open the season on the DL.
After missing the season’s first 12 games, Span played 59 of the team's next 71 games, missing occasional time due to back spasms that were caused by weakness in key stabilizing muscles. On July 7, he went on the DL again, and didn't return until Tuesday. He played in just two games before sitting on Thursday due to left hip inflammation, and when he didn't enter Thursday night's game against the Padres after fill-in centerfielder Michael Taylorsuffered a right knee contusion when he collided with the centerfield wall, it was clear the Nationals had even bigger problems.
Much has been made over the fact that the Nationals have gone 36–25 with Span in the lineup and 28–38 (through Friday) without him, but some of that may owe to the hot and cold streaks of his teammates. Harper, for example, hit .356/.484/.740 in 275 PA between Span's first two DL stints, compared to .318/.440/.507 in 182 PA since the second one. Taylor, a highly regarded rookie who has mostly scuffled at the plate (.241/.290/.390 with a 4.9 K/BB ratio), has been even less productive out of the leadoff spot (.206/.231/.349 in 130 PA), and the team's non-Span leadoff hitters as a group have combined to hit just .250/.304/.412. On the other side of the ball, Max Scherzer (2.04 ERA), Jordan Zimmermann (2.54 ERA) and Drew Storen (1.93 ERA) were particularly stingy during Span's presence, and have been far less so in his absence. Overall, during the 71-game stretch that Span was available, the Nationals scored 4.38 runs per game and averaged 3.82, compared to scoring 4.07 per game and allowing 4.27 the rest of the season.
That said, one odd but perhaps understandable facet of Span's performance this year is his defensive decline, with his range possibly limited. From 2008–12, he was six runs above average per year according to Defensive Runs Saved, but 10 below average within the small sample of this year's games; via Ultimate Zone Rating, he was five above average per year through 2014, but is five below this year. Taylor, in his 70 games in center, has graded out right at average via DRS, and 10 runs above average via UZR.
Span isn't the only Nationals player who has served multiple stints on the DL this year. Anthony Rendon, who ranked second in the NL last year in WAR with 6.6, missed the team’s first 53 games due to a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee and as well as an oblique strain, then lost another 23 games to a left quadriceps strain. Jayson Werth, who last year ranked second among the team's position players with 4.0 WAR, missed the first six games recovering from surgery to repair the acromioclavicular joint in his right shoulder. He then missed 60 games from mid-May to late June after suffering two small fractures in his left wrist while being hit by a pitch. Stephen Strasburg missed more than three weeks due to a neck strain in June, then made just three starts before an oblique strain felled him for five additional weeks. Meanwhile, Ryan Zimmerman and Doug Fister are among the other key players who have served one stint on the DL. While Strasburg has pitched well since returning from his first stint and Werth is starting to show signs of life, every player from the aforementioned group has underproduced relative to ‘14 and to established career norms.
For Span, who's making $9 million this year, this season was supposed to set up a big payday, as he will be a free agent this winter. Under normal circumstances, he could probably have expected at least a four-year deal in the $50–60 million range, and perhaps even a fifth year. Now, he might have to settle for a shorter deal, though that could actually increase his likelihood of staying with the Nationals if both sides desire. The team could give him a one-year qualifying offer that's likely to be around $16 million (it was $14.1 million after the 2013 season and $15.3 million after ‘14), which is not a huge overpay from the aforementioned average annual values. If Span were to accept it, he would get another year in familiar surroundings to re-establish his value while Washington would receive a compensatory draft pick if he rejects it.
That's an issue for another day. For the moment, the Nationals, who entered the day with just an 8.2% chance at making the playoffs according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds, will go forward with makeshift outfields until Taylor, who’s day-to-day, can return. In a 4–3 loss against the Miami Marlins on Friday night, Williams gave infielder Danny Espinosa his first career start in leftfield, started Harper in center for just the second time this season and Werth in right for the first time all year. Injuries can make for strange lineups, but at this point, the team that was once heavily favored to win the NL East and more has little choice but to make do.