Spring Training 2008, Fort Myers, Florida. Denard Span is in tears. Despite outplaying Carlos Gomez for much of the exhibition season, he is heading down to AAA Rochester. The decision is hardly surprising as the team, believed to be entering a rebuilding year, feels it needs to showcase Gomez, the centerpiece of the off season Johan Santana trade. The club was impressed, however, by Span's spring improvement after entering the organization's doghouse by hitting .267 in Rochester last season.
But despite the insistence of the club, Span was not given a fair opportunity. This was the baseball equivalent to a "open competition" between former Packers quarterback/legendary drama queen Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. To his credit, he does not sulk over the decision, instead telling reporters he will work hard and realizes his opportunity will come.
April 6th. The opportunity comes quick. The Twins recall Span just one week into the season after right fielder Michael Cuddyer goes on the disabled list with a finger injury. Manager Ron Gardenhire tells reporters that Span will have to work his way into the lineup and will platoon with Craig Monroe in the outfield. Span plays in 12 games before his late-April demotion, batting just .258 with an underwhelming .582 OPS.
Span returns again in late June as Cuddyer's injury-plagued season continues after hitting .340 in Rochester and posting a .915 OPS. On a team already missing spark plug Alexi Casilla and lacking any real power beyond Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel, Span's impact on the lineup can not be understated.
He immediately added some swagger to the team, along with terrific defense and quality at bats. His emergence as a leadoff hitter has allowed Gomez and his pitiful OPS and high strikeout total to drop to the bottom of the lineup. His ability to take pitches has resulted in better at bats for the whole team and created a patient approach at the top of the lineup along with Alexi Casilla and now Nick Punto.
After going 2-4 with a double and an RBI in his June 30th return, he hits .321 with a .912 OPS in July and has hit .364 with a ridiculous .992 OPS in August. Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of his season has been his success vs. lefties. While he struggled in this department in the minors, he has hit .318 vs. southpaws in the big leagues. He also has flashed some rare power in recent weeks, homering in a crucial game vs. Chicago's Mark Buehrle and again off ex-Twin/steroid user Juan "Hanging Slider" Rincon.
Perhaps his best game in the bigs came this past week in Seattle as his team, in the middle of a pennant race, was on the brink of dropping three straight heartbreakers to the worst team in the American League. His bases clearing, three run double off Jarrod Washburn (another lefty) was just an appetizer. The big moment came in the seventh inning with one runner on base for the Mariners and Adrian Beltre at the plate. He lifted a Jesse Crain hanger to deep right. Span hung in the air, brought it back and averted another bullpen meltdown for the third straight day.
The latest news came Friday with word that Cuddyer got struck with a line drive off the bat of AAA first baseman Garrett Jones and cracked his foot. Cuddyer was originally supposed to return Monday vs. the Yankees, but instead will now be out at least 4-6 more weeks.
I'm still not sure which part of the story is most surprising: the fact a line drive could crack Cuddyer's foot on a rehab assignment and set him back 4-6 weeks or the fact that Jones produced an at bat that didn't end with an embarrassing strikeout.
The only shot he would have of significantly contributing in 2008 is in the playoffs if Minnesota makes it that far. As a result, that has cleared the way for Span to stick around in the everyday outfield with enigmatic Delmon Young and exciting, yet mistake prone, Carlos Gomez.
What happens this off season with four openings (three outfield spots, 1 designated hitter spot) and five talented young outfielders (Gomez, Span, Young, Kubel, Cuddyer) coming back for 2009? That's a whole different column. For now, Twins fans should just enjoy the ride Span Man provides atop a speedy, young and exciting Minnesota lineup.