FORT MYERS, Fla. — One morning in the final week of spring training, Denard Span arrived at Hammond Stadium a little before 8 a.m., about two hours before Twins players were required to be in uniform. Span had plenty to do before the official start of the day.
In the training room, Span limbered up with abdominal exercises to strengthen his core muscles. Then he headed for the indoor batting cage under the third base stands. With hitting coach Joe Vavra away because of a death in the family, Span worked with Riccardo Ingram, the Class AAA Rochester coach he credits for helping him regain his stroke and confidence at the plate. In between rounds, Span strengthened his legs with lateral one-legged hops, to the right and to the left.
Next, Span joined coach Jerry White in another cage for bunting practice. For about 10 minutes, White reached into a large bucket and tossed baseballs to Span, who squared and bunted them in different directions.
Then, after toweling off and snacking on a toasted bagel with strawberry cream cheese, Span joined his Twins teammates on the main field at Hammond Stadium for stretching and batting practice. Running down fly balls in the outfield, especially in left — the only one of the three outfield positions he has never played regularly in professional baseball — has been most important part of Span’s daily routine all spring.
“I’ve probably spent more time in left field shagging than any other position,” he said. “Left field is the most foreign to me right now.”
Hard worker, versatile athlete
Span’s work ethic makes him one of the most popular young Twins. But his athleticism is both his greatest gift and biggest curse. Of the four outfielders manager Ron Gardenhire will try to wedge into three starting spots, Span — a natural centerfielder and the club’s best leadoff hitter– is the designated rover, the only one expected to play all three positions this season.
Based on Span’s stellar part-season performance as a rookie last year, hitting .294 with 70 runs scored in 93 games, he probably deserves to be the everyday center fielder over the streaky, strikeout-prone and inconsistent-fielding Carlos Gomez. But Span, mindful of how low he stood in the organization’s eyes last year at this time, refused to make an issue of it.
“I think I’m too young in my career to have an ego, period,” he said. “I’m too young in my career to feel like I deserve to be playing one position every day. I’m at the point right now where I just want to play. I want an opportunity wherever, and I’ll play.
“Ask me that question 10 years from now after 10 years in the big leagues, then maybe I can tell you, I want to be playing center field or I want to be playing left field every day, just one position. Right now, I’ll do whatever it takes to help the team win, and do whatever it takes to be in the major leagues.”
A major-league player with no ego?
That’s rare in a sport where players presume someone else will clean up their sunflower seed shells, gum wrappers and assorted trash, let alone used towels and dirty socks. (Ever see a dugout floor in the eighth inning? No further witnesses, your honor.)
But Span’s refreshing humility and honesty set him apart. When he accepted the club’s Rookie of the Year plaque at the Diamond Awards in January, Span frankly described playing last season with a chip on his shoulder. Without malice, he thanked sportswriters who wrote him off last spring training after Gomez beat him out for the center field job. And Span promised to keep playing as if he had something to prove — which, frankly, he does. And so do many of his teammates.
Team basically stood pat during off-season
After winning 88 games and forcing the White Sox to a one-game playoff for the AL Central title, the Twins basically stood pat, adding free agent third baseman Joe Crede just before spring training but otherwise relying on their young players to improve. The starting pitchers especially.
Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins all won at least 10 games last year, and Francisco Liriano added six in the final two months in his return from Tommy John surgery. Can Liriano, the rookie sensation of 2006 and today’s Opening Night replacement for a stiff-shouldered Scott Baker, be the ace the Twins lack?
The Twins chose to solve their bullpen problems largely from within, though lefty Jose Mijares’ awful spring (he’ll start the year at Rochester) leaves uncertainty getting to closer Joe Nathan. Can Jesse Crain finally throw first-pitch fastball strikes? Does Matt Guerrier have anything left after manager Ron Gardenhire wore him out the last two seasons? And who steps in if they falter?
Offensively, the Twins expect improvement based on a full season of Span and Alexi Casilla at the top of the lineup (likely), returns to health by Michael Cuddyer and Crede (iffy), and more power from Delmon Young (anybody’s guess).
Gardenhire, disgusted by his club’s 108 errors last year — its highest total since 2001, Tom Kelly’s final season — demanded a tighter ship and continuity. Last year, the Twins ran through four starting shortstops (Adam Everett, Brendan Harris, Nick Punto and Matt Tolbert) and six third basemen (Mike Lamb, Brian Buscher, Harris, Matt Macri, Punto and Tolbert). With Gardenhire favorite Punto installed as the shortstop and the sure-handed Crede at third, the defense should be a strong point.
“This is probably the most excited I’ve been about the defense, and I’ve seen some pretty good defenses behind me in the past, here and in San Francisco,” Nathan said as the Twins prepared to open their last season in the Metrodome.
“Some guys are good but kind of get lazy sometimes. When they enjoy playing defense, that’s huge.”
Span stays on task
One of those is Span, who impressed the Twins by making himself into a more-than-competent right fielder on the fly. Called up briefly last April to replace the injured Cuddyer, White said, Span was told to concentrate on playing right when he returned to Rochester. “When he came back, he had it down,” White said. “When you ask someone to go down and work on something, you can tell the first day whether they did it.”
Curiously, White thinks Span might be better defensively in the corners that in center. Span said shifting to right was easy. He’s reserving judgment on left, which White calls the toughest field to play in the Metrodome because of the angles, the generous room in foul territory and glare from the lights.
“Center is my natural position, but I’m pretty sure with more games played and more opportunities, that I’ll be fine in left field,” Span said. “I’ve just got to get used to going in the left-center gap, going towards the line, and being mindful about how the ball spins off lefties bats when they hit the ball to left field.”
That Span hit only .190 this spring doesn’t surprise Cuddyer, a former infielder who shifted among multiple positions himself before settling into right.
“What you tend to forget, you putting so much focus on learning new positions and moving around to all these position, it takes away a little of your focus at the plate,” Cuddyer said. “You have to be able to work a little harder, and longer, because it takes more hours in the day to prepare yourself for all these different positions and still prepare yourself at the plate.
“It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s one we’re going to need him to do.”
With no clear favorite in the AL Central, the Twins should have as good a chance as any if the pitching excels and the defense shines. Span said he’s ready to contribute whatever the Twins need.
“It’s been a long spring, a different spring for me than the past few years,” he said. “It’s the first spring where I actually feel like people know what I can do. It’s a good feeling.
“But pretty soon the season will start, and I will be back to my shell, mentally have that chip on my shoulder and just focus. I just mentally want to have my mind of the game, visualize what I’m doing, and just remember what I had to go through to get here. I realized, even after last year, I play my best ball when I’m in that shell. The season’s starting pretty soon, so I’m out to make that transformation.”
Pat Borzi, a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the New York Times, writes about sports for MinnPost.com.