Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Who is Denard Span?

Span celebrates after robbing Adrian Beltre of a go-ahead home run
Drafted out of high school in the first round by the Twins, Denard Span was seen as the team's centerfielder of the future from the moment he signed.  Although they had perennial Gold Glover and face of the franchise Torii Hunter patrolling center field at the time, it was clear that eventually he would need to be replaced.  At 18 years old, Span's timeline fit well, as he would not be ready for years to come.  That time finally came after the 2007 season, when Hunter left the Twins as a free agent and wound up signing with the Los Angeles Angels.

There was just one issue, however: Span hadn't actually played that well in the minor leagues, and certainly not well enough to indicate he would be an equal replacement for Hunter.  His performances in terms of OPS were unappealing at Rookie level (.695), Low Single-A (.672), and Double-A (.693).  Only in his comparatively brief stint in High Single-A did he have more respective offensive totals (.813 OPS).  As a result, the Twins sought a Major League-ready centerfielder as the key component in any trade involving Johan Santana, whom they were shopping during the same offseason.  In the end, they acquired Carlos Gomez from the Mets to replace Hunter.

With Gomez in center, the also newly-added Delmon Young in left, and Twins mainstay Michael Cuddyer in right, Minnesota's outfield seemed set for years to come, and Span appeared headed for a backup gig at best.  But he got a break when Cuddyer headed to the disabled list just five games into the 2008 season.  The Twins called Span's number and he appeared in his first Major League game on April 6.  Following a 12-game cameo in which he did not impress, Span was back in Triple-A upon Cuddyer's return.

But two months later, Cuddyer again suffered an injury and went back on the disabled list.  In that span of time, a funny thing had happened: Denard Span had begun to play very well.  For the year, he had hit .340 and accumulated a .915 OPS, with both numbers being far better than anything he had shown at other, less challenging levels.  Usually streaks like that turn out to be a fluke, but Span proved it was nothing of the sort.  Called up on June 30, he started each of Minnesota's 81 remaining games, compiling a .297 average, a fantastic .393 OBP, and an .842 OPS (his total season numbers were all slightly worse because of his earlier call-up).  Whether it was due to his off-season Lasik eye surgery or other reasons altogether, Span was suddenly a legitimate big league player.

Span had forced his way into the Twins outfield, which caused quite the logjam entering the 2009 season.  They still had the aforementioned players aligned in each position, but in addition Span was now available to play any of the three positions.  Though he had played right field, save for the occasional spelling of Gomez in center, he could play anywhere in the outfield.  With Cuddyer entrenched in right and Jason Kubel the regular DH, Span solidified his role as an everyday starter by essentially duplicating his 2008 performance over the first month, and maintaining that pace throughout the remainder of the season.  That left Young and Gomez as the odd men out, fighting for the one starting spot and for spot starts in place of Span, Cuddyer, and Kubel.

2010 was a down year for Span, as his average dipped to .264.  Nonetheless he was still a decent contributor, particularly because he moved to center field full time with Gomez having been traded to Milwaukee.  Hopeful for a rebound in 2011, Span started off strong and was having a fine year, in part due to his vastly improved defensive rating.  Unfortunately, he suffered an unusual concussion sliding into the catcher feet-first and has missed the last two months as a result.  He will return to Minnesota for the first time tonight and will attempt to replicate a strong first two months of the season.

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