Likely Starter: Denard Span
2011 Stats: .264/.328/.359, 2 HR, 16 RBI, 37 R, 6/7 SB
Potential Backups: Ben Revere, Joe Benson, Darin Mastroianni
A good case can be made that during his first two seasons in the majors, Denard Span was not only one of the most underrated players on the Twins, but in all of baseball. Between 2008 and 2009, Span hit .305/.390/.422 with 41 steals and 63 extra-base hits in 238 games.
A young, cost-controlled leadoff man with a .390 OBP, a bit of pop and the athleticism to competently play center field? That's not a solid contributor, that's a stud.
Span's drop-off in 2010 was staggering. With Carlos Gomez gone, he assumed full-time duties in center and saw his OPS drop by 130 points, effectively dropping his designation from elite to ordinary.
It appeared that Span had reemerged as a true asset at the top of the order last year, as he sat with a .300/.367/.392 hitting line on June 6, but that day he suffered a concussion in a home plate collision and he was never the same afterward. He went on to hit .132 over two stints in August and September, finishing with an OPS nearly identical to that mediocre 2010 campaign.
Twins fans know all too well how long the after-effects of a concussion can linger, with Justin Morneau still not right 20 months after his incident in Toronto. Span carries his own concerns, especially in light of the migraine headaches he'd dealt with prior to being concussed, and he admitted recently that he still experiences the occasional bad day
Fortunately, the center fielder's performance in spring training thus far has done nothing but inspire confidence that he can shake off the injury concerns and return at least to the form he showed in the early months of last season.
Through 11 exhibition games, Span is hitting .355. He's shown a great plate approach with four walks and only two strikeouts, he's been aggressive on the bases with five steal attempts, and he even came away from a wall collision in the outfield altogether unscathed. We often caution not to place too much stock in spring numbers, but Span's play in Ft. Myers has been about as encouraging as one could hope for.
That doesn't mean he's out of the woods, of course. If the head problems become an issue again for Span, or if he suffers a different injury, the Twins will need to be prepared. In a short-term scenario, Ron Gardenhire could probably just shift a few players around and plug in someone like Rene Tosoni, Ryan Doumit or Darin Mastroianni. If the need is more long-term, it's likely that the Twins would call upon Joe Benson, a top prospect in the organization who like Span is having a very strong spring.
Benson has posted an OPS above .800 in three straight minor-league seasons and got a taste of the majors last September. At age 24, he appears close to big-league ready. He leads the Twins with 10 RBI in Grapefruit League play after blasting a two-run homer against the Tigers yesterday. His high strikeout totals will be an ongoing concern, but his combination of patience, power and flat-out athleticism are quite intriguing.
If Span or another outfielder goes down for a lengthy period of time and Benson continues to impress, it's likely that he'd get the call, either in center or in a corner spot with Revere shifting to the middle. He's one of the organization's only high-quality prospects in the upper levels of the minors, making the outfield an area of relative depth for the club.
Of course, the Twins and Benson will both be better off if he's able to log some experience in Triple-A where he's yet to take a single at-bat and come up on his own terms rather than out of necessity. The hope is that Span can keep the bad days at bay and help facilitate that process. I'm optimistic that he will.
Predicted 2012 Hitting Line for Span: .280/.350/.370, 4 HR, 50 RBI