The conversation regarding the Cubs’ biggest offseason needs generally, and rightfully, revolve around the starting rotation. Although the four front starters (Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks) are all set to return in 2016 – in good health, no less – it was made quite clear throughout the season (and more so in the playoffs) that the Cubs can use a couple of new arms, at least, for 2016.
Although the starting rotation is definitely in need of an upgrade, there’s at least one other significant big hole on the roster: center field. That hole also happens to come with a hole in the leadoff spot, too.
Last season’s primary center fielder, Dexter Fowler, performed admirably in nearly all aspects of the game, but is now a free agent and may have priced himself right out of the Cubs budgetary comfort zone. He’ll get a qualifying offer from the Cubs, but whether he can (or should, at his price level) be retained is another question entirely.
Fowler’s back-up down the stretch, Austin Jackson, has also become a free agent, but might not be as attractive as some of the other available options. Oft-discussed free agent Jason Heyward is young and talented, but might wind up with a contract touching upwards of $200M. There have been a flurry of Alex Gordon rumors, but, like Jason Heyward, he is more of a very (defensively) talented corner outfielder, rather than a true center fielder – not to mention, he, too, will require a significant contract that will begin with his age 32 season. A trade is always a possibility, but is very difficult to predict and even more difficult to execute. So what’s left, after eliminating big time free agents, massive contracts, older players or significant trades, is a theoretical player looking for a short-term contract – a prove-it deal, if you will. These types of contracts are usually much more affordable and less risky, but can offer significant upside (think 2014 Jason Hammel, 2013 Scott Feldman or 2012 Paul Maholm). As it stands, there exists one such center fielder set to hit the free agent market, who may need to entertain one of these 1-year, prove-it style contracts: Denard Span.
Span, 31, was a member of the ultimately disappointing 2015 Washington Nationals. On the team since 2013, Span and the Nationals actually share a similar story over the past two seasons. Through 668 plate appearances in 2014, Span slashed .302/.355/.416 with just a 9.7% strike-out rate, accumulating 4.0 WAR in the process. Expectations were high, and it seemed like Span was primed for another successful season in 2015. But, like the Nationals, Span was unable to live up to the expectations set in 2014, and injuries were a big part of that. This piece from the Washington Post does a nice job of recapping his injury-riddled season, but, in short, Span dealt with an injury to his groin that required sports hernia surgery before the season, soreness on his right side that kept him out until mid-April, back-spasms that took him in and out of the lineup daily, and ultimately a torn labrum (hip), which required surgery on September 2, putting him out 4-6 months (which would make a 2016 Spring Training return in March feasible, but not guaranteed). Although the results were mostly there, at least offensively (.301/.365/.431 slash line with a 9.5% strike-out rate), Span was limited to just 275 plate appearances and 1.4 WAR in 2015.
Because 2014 was Span’s most successful season and it was followed immediately by an injury plagued 2015, he might not be able to turn his previous career achievements into the type of contract he wants – or deserves – in 2016. A 1-year bridge contract may be in his future, and the Cubs could be the team to give it to him.
If you recall, Span was connected to the Cubs last offseason in a handful of rumors, before the team ultimately turned to the Astros and Dexter Fowler to fulfill their center field needs. While that doesn’t necessarily mean anything concrete, it does suggest that there was at least some superficial interest in the center fielder. Furthermore, Patrick Mooney recently indicated that there is interest in Span from the Cubs.
At a minimum, a healthy Span in 2016 would be a clear upgrade over anything currently ready in the Cubs system, as well as a possible defensive upgrade over the Fowler/Jackson/Chris Denorfia triumvirate that took most of the center field reps in 2015. At a maximum, he has a ton of offensive potential that was carried on even throughout an injury shortened season. While he hasn’t ever been a consistent slugger (his SLG % has been above .400 just four times since 2008), he has always gotten on base at impressive clips and has hit for average throughout his career, as well. Indeed, before his short 2015 season, Span was worth over 3 WAR three years in a row. If the Cubs wound up with Denard Span patrolling center field in 2016, I’d be plenty happy. But what will it take to make that a reality?
Because Denard Span is a pending free agent that remained on his team the entire year, the Nationals will have to decide whether or not they want to provide him with a qualifying offer worth $15.8M for 2016. Although no player has ever accepted the qualifying offer since its inception, Span might be tempted to take the guaranteed money in a familiar location, due to the uncertainty of his return and the degree of difficulty in being picked up as a free agent tied to draft pick compensation. Most believe that the Nationals will not risk giving Span a qualifying offer, while others appreciate the difficult position all parties will be in. It is truly one of the more difficult qualifying offer decisions I’ve seen. [Brett: Agreed that it’s a really close call. Given the Nats’ options in the outfield, and Span’s injury, I tend to think they’ll decline to make him the offer. If they did, it seems like it would be an almost perfect situation for Span, since he could accept, be paid handsomely to “prove it,” and then hit free agency again. But, then, he’s a very good player, and the temptation of getting that pick is strong.]
If the Nationals do extend a qualifying offer and Span rejects it, though, it will be more difficult to see the Cubs getting involved. Losing a first round draft pick in exchange for a one-year, prove it deal might be too much to entertain – especially when other solid options do exist. On the other hand, it’s possible the Cubs will have already signed a free agent tied to draft pick compensation and the additional impact of the loss will be softened (or because they’ll get a pick for Fowler, the impact would be softened). Of course, if Span rejects $15.8 million for 2016, he’s pegging his value higher than that. Would the Cubs agree?
There is also the possibility that the Nationals make Span the qualifying offer, he accepts, and then they try and shop him this offseason. In that case, the Cubs might be suitors.
All in all, Span is a very interesting target that would allow the Cubs to get their 2016 center fielder, without giving up too much in terms of talent or payroll flexibility. He’s had an above-average career, which was coming to a peak, before stumbling through a season of injuries. The risk is very obvious, but so is the upside. His story will be one to follow, this offseason, even if it does not end in Chicago.
It starts on Friday, when qualifying offer decisions must be made.