It wasn't long ago that the Twins' future replacement for Torii Hunter seemed set in stone. As recently as a last year, it appeared that Denard Span would unquestionably be taking over the reigns from Hunter perhaps as soon as the 2007 season. However, after a failure to show progress in the '06 season, Span's future is very much in doubt, and unless he can turn things around he may not project as anything better than a speedy backup outfielder in the majors.
The Twins drafted Span out of high school with their first-round pick in the 2002 draft, making him the 20th overall selection. He was the prototypical Twins' offensive draft pick: an athletic and toolsy player known for his defensive prowess. Span came onto the scene in 2003 with a decent pro debut, hitting .271/.355/.319 in the Appalachian Rookie League as a 19-year-old. His 2004 season was nothing special, but it was 2005 when Span put himself on the map and started to look like the franchise's future center fielder. After cruising to a .339/.410/.403 line with 13 stolen bases and a 25/22 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 49 games at High-A Ft. Myers, Span was promoted to Double-A where he hit .285/.355/.345 in 267 at-bats. Span started 2006 back in New Britain, but it seemed certain that his season would end in Triple-A, if not in the majors.
Sadly, Span failed to show any progress. He spent the entire year in Double-A, where he hit .285/.340/.349 over 536 ABs. That line might not look terrible, but it was extremely discouraging for a few reasons. For one thing, it was almost identical to the line he put up in the same league a year before. Secondly, his patience at the plate showed no improvement, as he struck out 78 times while drawing just 40 walks in 581 plate appearances. Span stole 24 bases, which was good for a season-high in his pro career. While 24 swiped bags in a season isn't necessarily bad, it's not exactly earth-shattering and it's fairly disappointing for a guy with lightning speed like Span. (For comparison, Alexi Casilla amassed 50 stolen bases between Ft. Myers and New Britain last year.)
As a speedy slap-hitter with almost no power whatsoever (of his 153 total hits last season, just 24 went for extra bases), Span is in a position where he needs to get on base frequently and use his legs to hurt the opposition in order to be an effective offensive player. With a .340 on-base percentage, he wasn't getting on base enough, and with just 24 stolen bases on 35 attempts, his speed wasn't making him dominant on the base-paths. At this point, it's hard to see him projecting as anything better than a Jason Tyner in the major leagues.
The main thing Span has going for him right now is that he'll turn 23 next month, so he's still young enough to get things turned around and get back on track to start in the big leagues. Because he's getting older and because Hunter will almost certainly be gone following the 2007 season (or perhaps before it's over), this will be a crucial season for Span and he'll have to show some improved discipline at the plate and a readiness to take his game to the next level. Right now, it seems that a prospect like Trent Oeltjen or Brandon Roberts would be a more sufficient starting center fielder for the Twins come 2008.