|Kathy Willens, AP|
When Denard Span burst onto the scene in 2008 and went on to cement his impressive rookie performance with an equally strong 2009 campaign, he eventually came to be viewed as a godsend by Twins fans. Not because he was, in the grand scheme of things, an especially spectacular baseball player, but because he finally provided a legitimate on-base threat at the top of the lineup.
Finally, a Twins team that had been searching for an answer at the leadoff spot since trading Luis Castillo midway through the 2007 season and had opened the '08 campaign with out-making machine Carlos Gomez filling the all-important role had found a young player with a good eye who'd managed a .390 on-base percentage in his first 1,000 MLB plate appearances. As icing on the cake, Span sprinkled in a little power and a lot of speed, leading the league in triples in 2009.
So last year, when Span's OBP dropped to .331, just a couple ticks higher than the MLB-average leadoff man, it served as a major buzz kill. In his first year after signing a long-term deal with the club, the new cornerstone center fielder went from being a major offensive asset to a thoroughly mediocre hitter with substandard pop.
The drop-off in performance could theoretically be attributed to any number of things (Span himself placed partial blame on the playing surface at Target Field, though he did manage a .302 average at home), but the main issue was that he simply wasn't hitting the ball as hard.
Fewer ground balls found their way through the infield for hits, contributing to a 47-point drop in batting average. He drove fewer balls into the gaps and over the fence, helping a explain a 67-point drop in slugging percentage. Span's speed (26-for-30 on stolen bases) and plate discipline (60-to-74 strikeout-to-walk ratio) remained intact, but when he put the ball in play the results just weren't nearly as sterling as his first two big-league tours.
So the key for Span this season, offensively, will be raising his average. And, contrary to his personal misgivings about the natural grass at Target Field, it's other ballparks that represent his greatest opportunity for improvement. Span hit just .228 on the road last year; if his overall hitting line this season can more closely resemble his .302/.371/.390 mark from Target Field he should be just fine.
On the defensive end, it's perhaps unfortunate for Span that he happens to be following a pair of truly transcendent center fielders. Torii Hunter had a lengthy reign as one of the game's best gloves, gaining a reputation for pulling homers back over the Metrodome wall, and Carlos Gomez established himself as a truly spectacular outfielder during his stint.
Span's first season as full-timer in center was a mixed bag. His speed enabled him to cover ground and he was by no means a failure out there, but he whiffed on quite a few plays that Twins fans have grown accustomed to seeing made. He won't be confused with Hunter or Gomez any time soon.
Like it or lump it, the Twins will roll with Span in center as long as he's healthy in the short-term, but I do wonder if down the line they will give consideration to shifting him back into a corner spot (where his range truly stood out) and letting Ben Revere take over.
Should Span go down with an injury at some point this year, you can bet Revere will get his chance early.
Predicted Hitting 2011 Hitting Line for Span: .285/.370/.380, 6 HR, 55 RBI