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A Winner, Basically
DENARD SPAN'S pro baseball career began with a disappointment, as the swift centerfielder from Tampa Catholic High fell to the Twins with the 20th selection in the 2002 draft after he had turned down a $2 million predraft offer from the Colorado Rockies, who would have picked him ninth. That decision cost Span around $800,000, but even worse was what came next: five years of toil in the minors, five years of watching on crappy TVs in crappy hotels in crappy towns as his fellow '02 first-rounders—among them B.J. Upton, Prince Fielder, Scott Kazmir, Cole Hamels and Joe Saunders—rose quickly to the big leagues. "It wasn't easy, because I felt like I was just as good as those guys," says Span, 25. "I think I got caught up in worrying about other guys, guys I came up with. I think when I started worrying about myself was when things started going better for me."
Span's personal tipping point came late last spring, after G.M. Bill Smith and manager Ron Gardenhire informed him that he had lost the derby for the team's centerfield job to Carlos Gomez and would be sent down to Triple A Rochester (N.Y.). Span vowed to prove that he was ready for the majors, and he did: He hit .340 in 40 games with Rochester, and in two stints with Minnesota he hit .294 with 18 stolen bases while producing an OPS (.819) that exceeded by 73 points his minor league best and playing sterling defense at a new position, rightfield.
Span was one of six Twins who began the season in the minors but ended up making a significant impact on the big league club. (The others were third baseman Brian Buscher, second baseman Alexi Casilla, starters Francisco Liriano and Glen Perkins and reliever Jose Mijares.) They enabled a team that had appeared destined for last place after the departures of its ace (Johan Santana) and its OPS leader (Torii Hunter) to win nine more games than in '07 and come within a 1--0 playoff loss to the White Sox of claiming the AL Central crown.
"In our market we have to rely on scouting and player development more than some other clubs," says Smith, whose team had baseball's seventh-lowest payroll in 2008 but ranked fourth in runs scored (829) despite having only two established offensive threats, catcher Joe Mauer and first baseman Justin Morneau. "We can't always buy out our mistakes. So we have to rely heavily on the minor leagues."
This year's Twins won't have to rely on the Rochester shuttle to regularly infuse them with talent, as Span and most (if not all) of the rest of the 2008 call-ups have locked down gigs in Minneapolis. The only significant new face might be that of slugger Joe Crede. A budget-friendly free-agent market enticed Twins execs to break from their usual scout-and-develop modus operandi and sign the former White Sox third baseman, an All-Star in '08, to a one-year contract worth only $2.5 million guaranteed.
Of course, any contribution from Crede will be largely negated should Minnesota be forced to play for an extended period without either Mauer or Morneau—and Mauer, disquietingly, did not participate in any baseball activities this spring after undergoing surgery to repair a kidney blockage in December and then suffering through inflammation in his lower back. Mauer won't be ready for Opening Day, but if, as expected, the two-time batting champ can return sooner rather than later, the Twins appear as likely as any team to win a division that lacks a superpower. They'll rely on a supporting cast of Span and his fellow youngsters to get them over the hump. "I came out of nowhere" says Span of his 2008 performance. That won't be the case in '09, for him or his club.
CONSIDER THIS A Modest Proposal ...
Delmon Young (left) has a career batting average of .292, which belies his disappointing productivity. He hardly ever draws a walk (53 unintentional passes in 1,435 career plate appearances), leaving him with a mediocre .326 OBP. His power is well below average for a leftfielder (.413 career slugging percentage), and his defense is also below average. With Denard Span, Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer, the Twins would have the outfield corners and DH well-covered, so they can afford to have Young start the season in Triple A, where he can work on a plate approach that will enable him to use his enormous natural talent to put many more runs on the board. It's a radical move, but Young is still only 23 and has his peak years ahead of him. Minnesota needs him to be more than the next Garret Anderson, another .290 hitter who is an out machine.