Likely Starter: Denard Span
2009 Stats: .311/.392/.415, 8 HR, 68 RBI
Potential Backups: Jacque Jones, Nick Punto, Matt Tolbert
Following the 2007 season, the Twins were left needing both a center fielder and a player who could competently fill the leadoff spot, as the departures of veterans Torii Hunter and Luis Castillo had left vacancies in these key areas. When newly appointed general manager Bill Smith acquired Carlos Gomez in the Johan Santana trade during the ensuing offseason, he hoped he'd found a player who could ultimately thrive in both those roles. Two years later, Gomez is gone and a different -- and rather unexpected -- player is flourishing as the Twins' leadoff hitter and center fielder.
Back at the time when the Twins were scouring for Hunter's replacement, few would have guessed that Denard Span would ultimately be the answer. The former first-round pick was coming off his second straight minor-league season with a sub-.700 OPS, and seemingly lacked the on-base skills to project as a table-setter at the top of the lineup, which was how the Twins had envisioned him when they drafted him.
Yet, not visible in Span's overall Triple-A numbers from 2007 is that he came on strong late in the year and began to show increased patience. Span carried that success forward into spring training the next year, putting together a strong showing but still losing out on a roster spot to Gomez. Span returned to Triple-A and scorched the ball for a couple months, batting .340 in 40 games, before joining the Twins and putting together a season that merited serious Rookie of the Year consideration. Given that Span's .387 on-base percentage and .432 slugging percentage in his big-league debut seemingly came out of nowhere (he'd posted a .323 OBP and .355 SLG in Triple-A the previous year), many were skeptical of his ability to sustain that level of production. Span essentially erased any doubt last year by putting forth another tremendous effort and cementing himself as the club's long-term leadoff hitter.
As a result, Span was rewarded with a five-year contract this spring. While the deal only covers years that Span was under team control anyway (with an option to buy out his first year of free agency), it is a good faith showing by the organization. Combined with the Gomez trade, the contract seems to emphatically state that Span is the Twins' center fielder and leadoff man for the foreseeable future. And that gives the team's fans plenty of be happy about.
Span has essentially been a prototypical leadoff hitter over the past two years. He takes quality at-bats, gets on base with great regularity and has excellent speed. He can bunt. He's not vulnerable to left-handed pitchers (in fact, his numbers against southpaws have been significantly stronger). His ability to fill this role exceptionally is not in doubt. What is in some doubt is how he will fare as a full-time center fielder.
Span spent much of the past two seasons playing left field, where his defense was exquisite, but his work in center has not been quite as stellar. From an observational standpoint, Span noticeably missed balls last year that Gomez would have reached, and from a statistical standpoint Span rates drastically worse in center (-13.8 UZR) than he does in (16.7) left. Now, his number of innings in center field don't provide a large enough sample to draw real statistical conclusions, and indeed I don't believe that his ugly UZR in 700 career innings there really does him justice. Span has enough range to track down most of the balls he should and is equipped with an adequate arm, so I don't see him being a liability at the position. In fact, given his athleticism, he could easily become an asset there as he gains more regular big-league experience and grows accustomed to his new home park.
From the past several paragraphs, you can probably tell that I'm more than comfortable with Span as the team's starting center fielder. What I'm not comfortable with is the backup plan should Span go down with injury. That's because, right now, it doesn't appear that there really is one. The top candidate in camp right now to back up center field is Jacque Jones, but given that he was out of the majors last year it's a bit of a stretch to imagine that he'll be on the Opening Day roster. Nick Punto can play the position in a pinch and the Twins have given Alexi Casilla some reps in center field this spring, but neither is a particularly attractive option. If Span suffers a serious injury and needs to head to the disabled list, the Twins can call up someone to fill in (and Ben Revere is starting to look like a more and more legitimate candidate to do so this spring), but should Span get dizzy again and need a few days off, there doesn't appear to be anyone who can adequately handle the position on a short-term basis. This will certainly be something to follow throughout the season.
With a dearth of alternative options, Span's absence would leave an immense void in center field and in the leadoff spot, so his health and productivity will be of vast importance to the Twins' chances this year. I've doubted him in the past, but after watching him consistently thrive as a big-leaguer over the past two years, I'm done with that.
Predicted 2010 Hitting Line for Span: .290/.375/.410, 5 HR, 50 RBI