Entering the 2008 season, Twins outfielder Denard Span was considered a mid-range prospect who never made good on his lofty draft status. The 20th overall pick on the 2002 amateur draft, Span was an all-state wide receiver as well as a baseball star in high school. In their preview of the ’02 draft, Baseball America rated Span as possessing 70 speed on the 20-to-80 scouting scale and remarked that, “it’s easy to look at him and dream of Kenny Lofton.” The 6-0, 205 pound lefty was supposed to become a sparkplug for the Twinkies, working the count and then wreaking havoc on the base paths.
However, despite all of the accolades, Span’s stats rarely matched his glowing scouting reports. Span moved rather slowly through Minnesota’s system and rarely got the ball out of the infield, barely slugging above .300 between Rookie Ball and the Low-A Midwest League between 2003 and 2004. 2005 brought with it some promise, as the Florida native hit .339/.410/.403 in the High-A Florida State League and .285/.355/.345 upon earning a promotion to the AA Eastern League, but his momentum was once again stunted upon returning to Double-A New Britain in 2006 (.285/.340/.349).
Span was bumped up to AAA Rochester in 2007, which would end up being the lowest point in his career. Span batted just .267/.323/.355, without working the count (7.6 BB%) or helping matters on the bases (64 SB% in 39 attempts). Following his lackluster campaign, both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus soured on Span. BA rated him as just the fourth best center field prospect in the Twins’ system, while BP commented that “there is not much reason to believe he can be more than an extra outfielder.” At the time, it was hard to argue with either of those pronouncements. After all, Span was just a career .282/.349/.347 hitter, with average plate discipline and a propensity for being called out on the base paths (66.2 SB%).
Just when it seemed as though Span would be regarded as an exorbitantly-priced version of Lew Ford, he suddenly started to hit like a Lofton proxy. After a red-hot start at Rochester (14.3 BB%, .915 OPS in 156 AB), Span found himself seeing regular playing time for the Twins in the absence of Michael Cuddyer. In 411 PA, Span hit .294/.387/.432, posting a .364 wOBA and a 1.73 WPA/LI that paced all Minnesota outfielders. Though Span’s huge 25.7 line drive rate figures to fall, his .342 BABIP wasn’t excessively high.
Ordinarily, one might regard Span’s season as a blip, a flash in the pan. How often does a career disappointment suddenly start raking in the majors? However, there are some reasons to think that Span made some legitimate improvements in his game this past season. He drew walks at a 12.6% clip for the Twinkies while keeping his K rate in check (17.3%). His contact rate was a healthy 88.7%, and he almost never strayed from the strike zone, with an OSwing% of just 16.7%. That was the 10th-lowest figure among batters with at least 400 PA. Span’s stolen base prowess improved somewhat, at least to the point where he wasn’t harming his team (using the .22 run value for a SB and the -.38 value for a CS, Span’s 18/25 season came out to a net positive of 1.3 runs).
It’s not that uncommon for a player to experience a single-season hike in batting average or power, but it’s far more rare for a batter to show much-improved plate patience and then give all of those gains back the following year. Span’s increased walk rate and very low O-Swing% paint the picture of a hitter who refined his control of the strike zone and took a more mature approach with him to the batter’s box. Span might not be a star in the making, but as a high-OBP player with some speed, he could be a nice contributor to both the Twins and fantasy owners.
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