1 MINNESOTA TWINS

April 05, 2009

A Winner,Basically
A keen scouting eye, an attention to fundamentals and a few stars areenough

DENARD SPAN'S probaseball career began with a disappointment, as the swift centerfielder fromTampa Catholic High fell to the Twins with the 20th selection in the 2002 draftafter 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, buteven worse was what came next: five years of toil in the minors, five years ofwatching on crappy TVs in crappy hotels in crappy towns as his fellow '02first-rounders—among them B.J. Upton, Prince Fielder, Scott Kazmir, Cole Hamelsand Joe Saunders—rose quickly to the big leagues. "It wasn't easy, becauseI felt like I was just as good as those guys," says Span, 25. "I thinkI got caught up in worrying about other guys, guys I came up with. I think whenI started worrying about myself was when things started going better forme."

Span's personaltipping point came late last spring, after G.M. Bill Smith and manager RonGardenhire informed him that he had lost the derby for the team's centerfieldjob to Carlos Gomez and would be sent down to Triple A Rochester (N.Y.). Spanvowed to prove that he was ready for the majors, and he did: He hit .340 in 40games with Rochester, and in two stints with Minnesota he hit .294 with 18stolen bases while producing an OPS (.819) that exceeded by 73 points his minorleague best and playing sterling defense at a new position, rightfield.

Span was one ofsix Twins who began the season in the minors but ended up making a significantimpact on the big league club. (The others were third baseman Brian Buscher,second baseman Alexi Casilla, starters Francisco Liriano and Glen Perkins andreliever Jose Mijares.) They enabled a team that had appeared destined for lastplace after the departures of its ace (Johan Santana) and its OPS leader (ToriiHunter) to win nine more games than in '07 and come within a 1--0 playoff lossto the White Sox of claiming the AL Central crown.

"In ourmarket we have to rely on scouting and player development more than some otherclubs," says Smith, whose team had baseball's seventh-lowest payroll in2008 but ranked fourth in runs scored (829) despite having only two establishedoffensive threats, catcher Joe Mauer and first baseman Justin Morneau. "Wecan't always buy out our mistakes. So we have to rely heavily on the minorleagues."

This year's Twinswon't have to rely on the Rochester shuttle to regularly infuse them withtalent, as Span and most (if not all) of the rest of the 2008 call-ups havelocked down gigs in Minneapolis. The only significant new face might be that ofslugger Joe Crede. A budget-friendly free-agent market enticed Twins execs tobreak from their usual scout-and-develop modus operandi and sign the formerWhite Sox third baseman, an All-Star in '08, to a one-year contract worth only$2.5 million guaranteed.

Of course, anycontribution from Crede will be largely negated should Minnesota be forced toplay for an extended period without either Mauer or Morneau—and Mauer,disquietingly, did not participate in any baseball activities this spring afterundergoing surgery to repair a kidney blockage in December and then sufferingthrough 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 thanlater, the Twins appear as likely as any team to win a division that lacks asuperpower. They'll rely on a supporting cast of Span and his fellow youngstersto get them over the hump. "I came out of nowhere" says Span of his2008 performance. That won't be the case in '09, for him or his club.

CONSIDER THIS AModest Proposal ...

Delmon Young(left) has a career batting average of .292, which belies his disappointingproductivity. He hardly ever draws a walk (53 unintentional passes in 1,435career plate appearances), leaving him with a mediocre .326 OBP. His power iswell below average for a leftfielder (.413 career slugging percentage), and hisdefense is also below average. With Denard Span, Jason Kubel and MichaelCuddyer, the Twins would have the outfield corners and DH well-covered, so theycan afford to have Young start the season in Triple A, where he can work on aplate approach that will enable him to use his enormous natural talent to putmany more runs on the board. It's a radical move, but Young is still only 23and has his peak years ahead of him. Minnesota needs him to be more than thenext Garret Anderson, another .290 hitter who is an out machine.

THE NUMBERS
LIE
.305

The Twins'batting average with runners in scoring position last season, best in themajors. That's why they scored more runs than every AL team other except Texasand Boston despite hitting a league-low 111 homers. As clutch as Minnesotahitters were, however, it's difficult to view the large difference betweentheir average with RISP and their overall average (.279) as anything but astatistical anomaly that's unlikely to repeat itself.

The Lineup
WITH 2008 STATISTICS

Manager RonGardenhire
EIGHTH SEASON WITH TWINS

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

DENARD SPAN CF
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L 142 .294 6 47 18
ALEXI CASILLA 2B
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 238 .281 7 50 7
JOE MAUER C
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 59 .328 9 85 1
JUSTIN MORNEAU 1B
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 49 .300 23 129 0
MICHAEL CUDDYER RF
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 155 .249 3 36 5
JASON KUBEL DH
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 164 .272 20 78 0
JOE CREDE [NEW ACQUISITION] 3B
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 107 .248 17 55 0
DELMON YOUNG LF
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 172 .290 10 69 14
NICK PUNTO SS
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-R 286 .284 2 28 15
BENCH
CARLOS GOMEZ OF
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 124 .258 7 59 33
BRIAN BUSCHER IF
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 314 .294 4 47 0

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

ROTATION
PITCHER PVR W L K/9 WHIP ERA
RH Scott Baker 49 11 4 7.4 1.18 3.45
LH Francisco Liriano 55 6 4 7.9 1.39 3.91
RH Kevin Slowey 78 12 11 6.9 1.15 3.99
LH Glen Perkins 104 12 4 4.4 1.47 4.41
RH Nick Blackburn 111 11 11 4.5 1.36 4.05
BULLPEN
PITCHER PVR W SV K/9 WHIP ERA
RH Joe Nathan 8 1 39 9.8 0.90 1.33
RH Jesse Crain 203 5 0 7.2 1.37 3.59
LH Craig Breslow 250 0 1 7.5 0.98 1.91

NEWACQUISITION
B-T: Bats-throws
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 69)

NOW AT SI.COM/VAULT

EXCERPTED FROM SI
August 7, 2006

When the Minnesota Twins play on TV, Jake Mauer Sr.draws the shades at his house on Big Goose Lake, 35 miles north of Minneapolis,and settles into a chair three feet from his 56-inch TV screen. Maculardegeneration has robbed him of much of his vision, but by turning his head justso, he can, with his peripheral vision, see his grandson Joe step up to theplate. If Jake sees Joe overstriding or carrying his bat too low, he snapsphotos on his digital camera and calls him later, with comments. However, Jake[age 75] adds proudly, he rarely sees flaws; what he sees is "the greatesthitter I ever saw—and I saw Ted Williams."
—KELLI ANDERSON

For free access to all Twins stories and photographsfrom the SI archives, plus video clips, go to SI.com/vault.

PHOTOTED S. WARREN/AP LATESHOW Span lagged behind the rest of the '02 draft class but arrived in time tohelp turn Minnesota's season around. PHOTOMARK CUNNINGHAM/MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (YOUNG) PHOTO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)