During their offseason spending spree, the San Francisco Giants focused on the starting rotation. They also made an effort, by signing Denard Span, to strengthen their outfield defense while adding some speed at the top of their order. But Span has not produced as hoped. He isn’t hitting enough, nor is he stealing many bases.
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Throughout the Majors, the role of the leadoff hitter has been in the state of flux the past couple years, with some organizations turning to slower on-base machines or even going with power hitters, such as what Cleveland is doing with Carlos Santana. That’s because, in some circles, speed has been de-emphasized, based on a belief that stolen bases are overrated. (Or maybe, due to a couple of bigger-picture reasons, it has more to do with the fact that there just aren’t as many quality baseball players with speed as there used to be.)
As a result, the role has diversified, with still some classic leadoff hitters using their speed to make pitchers nervous. Span fits that category, as a left-handed hitter with a career .351 on-base percentage, a knack for hitting doubles and capable of stealing many bases. But that’s not what the Giants have gotten from him through the first 95 games of 2016.
During his career season in 2014, Span stole 31 bags and swatted 39 doubles and 8 triples, putting himself in scoring position (or improving his scoring position by stealing third) 78 times. So far in 2016, Span has only does this 24 times, for a pace for 41 over a full season—barely more than half of his 2014 total. Span’s one saving grace, at least offensively, is that he is walking a lot, which helps offset his poor hitting to give him a league-average .331 on-base percentage.
If he heats up soon, then great. The Giants will score more runs and likely win more games than if Span were to continue at his current production level. If he doesn’t step it up, the Giants might have to make an adjustment to their lineup.
Span is being paid good money (including signing bonus, $9 million this year) to handle center field and leadoff duties. But no individual salary is enough to prevent a lineup change that can help strengthen the team’s playoff aspirations. And really, the Giants aren’t paying Span an exorbitant amount, so it would be palatable if Span were to slide into a platoon or fourth-outfielder role.
This is likely what would happen if the Giants trade for a power-hitting outfielder who would take over left field and displace Angel Pagan. Pagan is still playing at a reasonably high level, so he could either reclaim center field—though that would hurt the defense—or platoon with Span and/or serve as a super utility outfielder (which is my way of saying he’s better than just a fourth outfielder).
Ideally, Span heats up, becoming the .300 hitter and base thief the Giants thought they signed. But if that doesn’t happen soon, the Giants’ decision-makers need to figure something out to boost the offense. Unfortunately, with the Aug. 1 non-waiver trade deadline just 10 days away, they don’t have much time to assess.