Likely Starter: Denard Span
2008 Stats: .294/.387/.432, 6 HR, 47 RBI
In January of 2007, I wrote a post titled "Will Span Pan Out?" that assessed the future of the Twins' once-bright center field prospect. At the time, Span was coming off a season in which he'd posted a mediocre .285/.340/.349 hitting line as a 22-year-old in Double-A and held a similar .288/.357/.346 career line through four minor-league seasons. At the time, I felt that Span looked like future light-hitting fourth outfielder with a good glove, and I concluded the article by saying that 2007 would 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."
That showed no signs of happening early on. Over the first four months of his first season in Rochester, Span posted on-base percentages of .261, .280, .311 and .312, striking out 80 times during that period while drawing just 24 walks. Then, in August (the final month he got extensive at-bats that year), Span displayed a dramatic shift in his plate approach, suddenly showing far more patience and drawing 16 walks while posting a .420 on-base percentage. I didn't make much of this seemingly odd occurrence, viewing it as a sample size fluke. The following spring Twins Geek made note of Span's late walk outburst in Rochester and observed that, in combination with the patience the outfielder had been showing in spring training, there might be something real there. I remained skeptical. After watching Span put together a tremendous 2008 season that would have certainly been deserving of serious Rookie of the Year consideration if not for the existence of Evan Longoria, I'm ready to admit that the Geek was right, Span was right, and I was wrong.
Now, that's not to say Span is a lock to go forth as the outstanding hitter he proved to be during the entirety of last year (both in Triple-A and the majors), but after watching him play extensively I've grown cautiously optimistic about his future. Span put up better numbers than any of his Twins outfield contemporaries last season, and with his patient approach at the plate and his ability to square up on the ball for solid contact, he seems like perhaps the safest bet of the outfield group to provide above-average numbers in 2008.
One area where Span will seemingly have a hard time avoiding regression is in the power-hitting department -- particularly against left-handed pitching. Last year, the left-handed hitter posted a .283/.402/.472 line against southpaws, which dwarfed his performance against righties. Now, Span is interesting in that he's always been a more disciplined hitter when facing left-handers. From 2005 to 2007, he posted a 76-to-46 strikeout-to-walk ratio against minor-league lefties (1.65 strikeouts for every walk) as compared to a 162-to-78 K/BB against minor-league righties (2.08 strikeouts for every walk). So, one can reasonably state that Span's ability to reach base against lefties at a rate similar to or better than his rate against righties is for real, and that makes him a great fit as an everyday lead-off hitter. The power he showed against lefties last year, however, is completely out-of-line with his track record. This gives us reason to project less power unless he can somehow repeat the strong showing against southpaws (not terribly likely) or show increased power against right-handers (more likely).
Of the four players who are likely to see significant time in the Twins' outfield this year, Span will probably move around the most. While I see him getting the majority of his playing time in left field, I suspect his ample experience in center field and right field will lead to a fair amount of playing time in both those spots. That's just fine, since Span is an above-average defender in any of three spots, but I do believe he's best-suited for left in the Metrodome, since there's more ground to coverthere than the baggy-shortened right field and since the other corner outfielders' stronger arms will play better in right.
On days that Span is sitting out or playing elsewhere, Delmon Young is likely to be manning left field. I think that Young will be a better defender this year than he was last year, when he was adjusting to a new position and bothered by a bad ankle, but he should still be kept out of left field when a fly ball pitcher like Glen Perkins or Scott Baker is on the mound. In general, I think Young represents a solid backup option in the event that Span gets hit hard by regression or injury, but for the time being Span is rightfully looking like the main man in left field.
I give Span a lot of credit. He has turned his game around and proven critics wrong, and now he seems poised to become the long-term lead-off solution the Twins have been seeking for over a decade. In order to do that, he'll have to first prove that last year wasn't a fluke; despite my past reservations, I'm pretty confident it was not.
Predicted 2009 Hitting Line for Span: .290/.375/.415, 10 HR, 65 RBI