A Look Back: Denard Span

26 Feb

also available at www.SethSpeaks.net

It certainly has not taken Denard Span very long to make himself one of the best leadoff hitters in the league.  Two years ago, the Twins brought in Carlos Gomez and Jason Pridie to compete with Denard Span for the starting centerfield job. Gomez won. Span went back to AAA Rochester.

He certainly had his ups and downs throughout his minor league career that began when the Twins used their first round pick on him in 2002. The Tampa native had the opportunity to play college football, but signed late with the Twins and began his playing career in Elizabethton. It wasn’t a rapid-rising situation for Span. He had some strong stretches, but also some weak stretches. But steadily he worked his way up the system, and on April 6, 2008, Span made his big league debut. He was sent back to Rochester but after an injury, he was back with the Twins in no time, and it was for good. He hit .294 and got on base 38.7% of the time as a 24 year old rookie. In 2009, he hit .311 and got on base 39.2% of the time. He hit 16 doubles, a league-leading ten triples and eight home runs. He played all three outfield positions, but manager Ron Gardenhire made it clear that the team needed to find a single place for Span to play in 2010. When the Twins traded Carlos Gomez to the Brewers for JJ Hardy after the World Series, Span became the team’s starting centerfielder. He has given the Twins their first pure leadoff hitter since 1996, Chuck Knoblauch’s final season with the Twins.

On Saturday, Denard Span will turn 26 years old. What does that mean? It means that he is entering his prime and his best years could be yet to come. Today, I am going to look back at all of my prospect rankings going back to the beginning. I want to see where I ranked Span and what I had to say about him at the time. Span has said numerous times, including on a recent episode of The Show with Seth Stohs, that he read everything and used any negative comments as motivation.  So, what did I say about the Twins future centerfielder?

September 2003

Denard Span Ranking – #5

2002 Twins #1 pick, Span signed late last year and didn’t play at all. This season, they kept him in extended spring training until the Rookie League season started. He played pretty well for Elizabethton, unfortunately shortly into the season, Span had an injury and was out for a few weeks. As you can see by the numbers, Span will not be a power hitter. He is always compared to Kenny Lofton. If he becomes that good, the Twins should be very happy!

September 2004

Denard Span Ranking – #16

The Twins #1 pick in 2002, Span has struggled so far. But, his speed and athleticism keep him high on this list. Fact is, despite not having a real high batting average at Quad Cities this year, he was beginning to really show improvement in terms of getting on base (.256/359/.288). Once he is on base, he can flat-out run (11/15 SBs). As he better learns the art of stealing bases and base running, he will become a dangerous weapon. However, just 34 games into the season this year, he broke his hamate bone (in his hand). He had surgery and the team is hoping that he will be able to participate in instructional league. His name has appeared in some trade rumors. I think the Twins would like to keep him around and in 3 or 4 years, when he has developed, he could take over CF for the Twins.

June 2005

Denard Span Ranking – #9

All anyone wants is to see a completely healthy season from Span. Actually, they are probably thrilled that he has only missed about ten games so far due to minor injuries. But it also looks like Span has learned how to hit. That .337 batting average with the .410 on-base percentage tells us that, as well as the few strikeouts. No, he has no power. But that isn’t the type of player he is. It bothers me when people compare a Span-like player to a Justin Morneau-like player. Both serve a different role on a team, and both can be important even if Span’s OPS never gets real high because of the lack of power. Anyway, back to Span. When healthy, he has been great and finally is starting to show the promise that the Twins saw when they drafted him in the 1st round three years ago. ETA – Sept. 2007. 

September 2005

Denard Span Ranking – #8

Everyone with the Twins says that Denard Span was greatly improved in 2005. It is very hard to argue with them! Coming into the season, Span struggled with a couple of things. He struggled with batting average. Some seemed to believe that he was trying to hit for too much power, rather than just use his speed. That may be true, but it certainly doesn’t show in his numbers. In 530 plate appearances coming into the season (two seasons, between rookie league and Low A), he had just sixteen total extra base hits. Here are two stats that he showed in those two years that I really like. First, he walked 60 times and struck out 89 times. It isn’t a great rate, but it isn’t bad and it is just one struck out every six plate appearances. I also like his isolated on-base percentage of .089 (and .096 in 2004). Those are very good numbers for a leadoff hitter. His ‘other’ problem through two years was just staying healthy. He missed significant time each season due to injury. So, what did he do in 2005? He started the year at Fort Myers and in 49 games, he hit .339/.410/.403 with seven extra-base hits. He walked 22 times and struck out just 25 times. He was 13 of 17 in stolen base attempts. He moved up to New Britain and played well from the start. In 68 games there, he hit .285/.355/.345 with eleven extra-base hits. He walked 22 times and struck out 41 times (but in 290 plate appearances, just one in seven). I have heard the argument that for Span to be successful, he will need to have a .400+ on-base percentage. Why? Because then with a .340 slugging percentage, his OPS would still be just .750. However, he is a leadoff hitter whose job it is to get on base. So, that type of hitter should be judged only by on-base percentage. Speed is a huge part of his game. He was just ten of 18 stealing bases at AA, and was picked off a number of times, so that is one facet of his game that still needs to be worked on. Baseball America’s JJ Cooper wrote, “Span has not shown he’s a polished base stealer yet, despite plus-plus speed. He has struggled to get jumps at times and doesn’t read pitchers particularly well. He has shown the ability to receive instruction, so the Twins believe he will become a better base stealer as he matures.” 2004 was an excellent season for the young Span. Span will likely start next season back at New Britain with a Rochester promotion at any time. Depending on what happens with Torii Hunter in the offseason, Span could make his big league debut at some point next year. Cooper also wrote, comparing Span to Hunter, “Span is more of a Juan Pierre type, with a better arm, than a power and speed guy like Hunter. But unlike many of the speedy leadoff hitters, Span understands that and is more interested in working counts than trying to pop home runs.”              

June 2006

Denard Span Ranking – #10

Span got off to a great start in April causing many to believe that he might truly be the heir-apparent to Torii Hunter, but May was not as good for Span. The lefty is now hitting .284/.332/.342. He hit a home run in his first at bat of the year, and has not hit any more since. He has just seven extra base hits in 190 at bats. Span is clearly an excellent athlete with incredible speed, so the main number I will watch with him is the on-base percentage, and .332 is not good. Also, I would like to see him try to steal more bases, although this year he is 10-14 which is an improvement. I still think that he can be a solid leadoff type hitter for the Twins, but I am unsure that his ceiling is real high.

September 2006

Denard Span Ranking – #12

Like Matt Moses, Denard Span also moved up to New Britain in 2005 and then spent all of 2006 with the Rockcats as well. Unlike Moses, Span at least remained steady and probably did improve a little bit in areas that the Twins would want him to. In 134 games, Span hit .285/.340/.349 with 16 doubles, six triples and two home runs. Speed is his game and he stole 24 bases in 34 attempts. Although 68% is not great, and more improvement is needed, it was a little better than he had been in his career. Span will never be a power hitter, so for him to have even a .700 OPS, he will have to get on base about 37% of the time. Span is still not ready, but according to our friend Roger’s statistical ranking of prospects, Span finished second in the organization to only Alexi Casilla. So, although none of his numbers really stand out, Span was solid, and at 22 years old and because he will only be put on the 40 man roster this winter, the team can and should continue to be patient with him. Unlike Moses, all reports are that Span is a good teammate and well respected. 

June 2007

Denard Span Ranking – #27

Throughout spring training he was called the Centerfielder of the Future, Torii Hunter’s heir-apparent. With a solid spring showing, and a lot of at bats, I was just about believing the hype. And then the regular season began, and reality set back in. We had heard that he had a new approach and was showing some pop in his bat. I don’t know, I haven’t seen it yet. He’s hitting .216. He is getting on base less than 28% of the time. He does have nine doubles and two triples, which gives him a slugging percentage of just .286. Now, he is still just 23. He is in his first year at AAA. But from what we’re seeing, he will not be a quality replacement for Torii Hunter. It is becoming much more likely that he will have a career similar to that of Jason Tyner. Now, to say something positive… he is 11 for 13 in stolen base attempts, a much better percent than he has had previously in his career. 

September 2007

Denard Span Ranking – #30

I spend a lot of time talking about wanting to see a player improve throughout the season. Well, if we simply look at Batting Average by month this year for Denard Span, it went .214, .212, .290, .273, .324, .444. That is a positive and yet, I certainly do not believe that he is ready to take over the Twins CF position. However, I would say that Span could become a solid #4 outfielder in the big leagues. I would like to say that he could be a Jason Tyner-like player. He hasn’t shown an ability to get on base at a high rate, he has little to no power and he is not an efficient base stealer. An OPS over .720 would be unlikely for him. I’d like to see Span get another year at AAA and see where he is in July or August. If the improvement and confidence continue, maybe he can become a solid starter in two more years.

June 2008

Denard Span Ranking – #25

Denard Span came to spring training this year clearly on a mission to prove everyone wrong. I think it is fair to say that he has done just that. He had a very good spring, doing all the things that the Twins could have asked. As a leadoff hitter, he has taken a lot of pitches, taken walks, stolen bases (even at a good percentage). When called up to the Twins, he played RF, a position that he had not played as a pro. After he was sent down, Span crushed the ball and did very well until he landed on the DL with a broken bone in his hand. Before that, he hit home runs in three consecutive games. Now, he isn’t suddenly a power hitter, but he has shown that he doesn’t have to be just a slap-happy hitter either. I think that if need be he can be a solid big league centerfielder. Defensively in center, I think he is excellent. At the corners, he just needs some time. So, when he comes back from the DL, I hope he gets to move around a little bit. For the Twins, I see Span primarily as a #4 or #5 type of outfielder. If dealt to another team, he could be another Juan Pierre type. 

And by the end of 2008, Span was no longer a prospect. He was a big leaguer, and a very good one at that. He has proven a lot of people wrong over the years. He has shown that we can’t only look at numbers to determine how good of a prospect will be. Denard Span equals class. He is a terrific guy. He was named the Twins’ Rookie of the Year in 2008, and in 2009, the Twins media made him their choice as the Media Good Guy. How good can Span be? It will certainly be fun to watch and find out.

If you would like, you can e-mail me, or feel free to leave your comments here.


9 Responses to “A Look Back: Denard Span”

  1. joelthing February 26, 2010 at 9:53 am #

    Fun to read. Excellent. You use your days in the minors to try different things, see what works, make adjustments, which Span did. He came to the majors ready to play. And the fact that he was once touted as the centerfielder of the future, and quickly — suddenly — became the 4th or 5th guy on the outfield chart, made him even more determined.

    That he grabbed the lead-off position and made it his own is something to congratulate him about — and, as you say, lead-off is all about on-base-percentage. If he hits a homer, or a triple…its gravy.

    Do a few more of these…like, Glen Perkins?

  2. Killabrew February 26, 2010 at 10:36 am #

    Don’t forget that Denard had laser surgery on his right eye before his breakout 2008 season… may be easier to turn on a pitch if you can actually see it!

  3. roger February 26, 2010 at 11:03 am #

    Great read Seth, what was most discouraging was the extreme abuse Span was taking on a lot of the premier sites during his time in the minors. Personally, I am elated at how well he has done….congrats Denard!

  4. TT February 26, 2010 at 11:29 am #

    “He has shown that we can’t only look at numbers to determine how good of a prospect will be.”

    I always liked Span. But to be fair, the Twins appeared to have given up on him when they went out and got Gomez and Pridie. I am sure that was not only, or even primarily, his numbers.

    But if you have given up on Delmon Young, it might be important to note that he is still two years younger than Span was when he finally broke in. And Casilla is about the same age as Span was. The real message here may be not to give up on guys with talent just because their numbers don’t reflect it yet.

  5. Han Joelo February 27, 2010 at 8:23 am #

    After recently reading interviews with Rob Antony and another with a Twins Int’l Scout on other sites, I have a new appreciation for player development, and Span is a great example. He had some great tools, but didn’t put up the eye popping stats in rookie ball that many washouts have done. What he did (and does) seem to have is great character. As excited as I am for the Hicks era to begin (or the Morales era) I don’t want the Span era to be over any time soon.

    Now, to cull through the prospect lists and uncover some more of these gems. I’m going to go with Steve Singleton as the next less-than-top prospect to turn into a solid regular on the big league level.

  6. dave February 27, 2010 at 8:30 pm #

    Watching Olympics reminds me how important mental toughness is. Baseball is awful at pigeon-holing guys, so when they [including bloggers] let you know you “don’t have what it takes,” they have to use it as motivation, rather than succumb.

  7. brad February 28, 2010 at 10:09 am #

    Perfect example of how screwed up these ‘prospect’ lists are. A kid 4 months out of HS or college jumps to a top 5 prospect and a kid like Span in considered chopped liver. Toolsy guys take longer to develop than single tool players like Mauer, Mourneau, Garza, etc.
    Span was a great athlete in HS and his skill sets looked to transpose well into ML baseball. Some kids get it right away, Heyward, and others take 4-5 years to learn the nuances of the game.
    Many have written off players like Fernando Martinez, Cameron Mabin, Lastings Milledge because they haven’t blossomed in their first few cup of coffees. If any of them had been a Twins minor leaguer they would just be reaching AAA now and wouldn’t have had to learn in the majors.

  8. SpecialK February 28, 2010 at 12:28 pm #

    You sorroiusly consider Mauer a one tool player?

    • brad March 1, 2010 at 9:14 am #

      2 tool, he had defense and high avg. He had no power and still has no speed

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