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Denard Span bled Twins colors through an underrated career

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The former Twin’s baseball impact spanned 11 productive seasons.

Kansas City Royals v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Earlier this year, former Twins center fielder Carlos Gomez announced his retirement from professional baseball. Five months later, one of his old outfield compatriots may be doing the same.

“I haven’t announced it, officially, but maybe this is it,” Span shared in an interview this week for the Star Tribune.

Span’s retirement would come after having last played an MLB game in 2018; after a famously forgettable off season the year prior, Span didn’t consider any of his 18-19 winter offers to accurately match his value as a player. Rather than take a minor-league deal after eleven years in major-league baseball, Span took the year off.

It’s almost a fitting end for a guy who always seemed to be underrated and undervalued.

Getting a Chance

After the 2007 off season, the Twins were without Johan Santana and Torii Hunter, and had received a replacement for the latter by trading the former. Go-Go Gomez was a light-hitting 22-year-old center fielder who had stolen 12 bases in 58 debut games with the New York Mets - the ideal Gardenhire-era leadoff hitter. He was joined by another new face, Delmon Young - the previous season’s Rookie of the Year runner-up.

In right was Minnesota veteran Michael Cuddyer, who had spent the last two seasons establishing himself as the team’s right fielder. Needless to say, there wasn’t a lot of room for a guy like Span, who lost the spring training roster battle to Gomez, who wasn’t about to be optioned back to the minors after being the centerpiece of the Johan deal.

However, Span would get his first chance soon. Cuddyer was injured shortly into the season, and Span arrived on the scene as a temporary replacement in the corner outfield. It was a spotty start — Span would OPS just .582 in April and fail to collect a single extra-base hit. After the 24th, Span wouldn’t be seen again until June.

He made the most of his time away. Hitting at a .340 clip throughout the early summer at Rochester, Span was recalled to the Twins just before the calendar hit July, and just before he was supposed to represent the USA at the Beijing Olympics. From that point on, he made his mark. Span doubled in his first game back and rattled off a six-game hitting streak. In his second stint of the season, he hit .297, had an on-base percentage of nearly .400, and demonstrated his prowess as a defender.

Back in 2008, a batting order had less to do with splits and efficiency, and more to do with player profiles and long-standing preconceptions of what kind of hitter belonged in each spot. As such, it was a much bigger deal than it would be today when on July 22nd, Carlos Gomez — after batting first in every one of his games — was swapped down to ninth in the order. Span took over as the new lead off hitter, and didn’t miss a game for the rest of the season.

One of my favorite Span memories comes from a pivotal series late in 2008. The Chicago White Sox had a 2.5-game lead in the division, and came to the Dome looking to put it away. The Twins won the first two games, then capped off the series with a dramatic 6-1 comeback that included Span (3-for-4, BB, 3 RBI) tying the game in the eighth with a thrilling triple down the right field line.

Span ended his rookie season with an OPS+ of 122 and a sixth-place finish in Rookie of the Year voting. Despite losing the battle in the spring, it was he - and not Gomez - who had made the bigger impact by season’s end.

Establishment

Over the next four seasons, Span made his presence known, as Gardy penciled his name into the #1 spot over and over. His best season as a Twin was his sophomore campaign - throughout the 2009 season, Denard was worth 4.1 WAR, hitting .311/.392/.415 with 23 steals. He led the league with 10 triples. Only six American League players swung at fewer pitches outside the zone. Only six had a better Contact%.

Before the now-legendary Game 163 in 2009, Span said of Detroit’s 1-2 weekend that set up the tiebreaker, “I don’t want to say they’ve choked, but, yeah, they have choked. They’ve choked a little bit.”

By 2010, Span had stopped roving from line to line and was entrenched as the permanent center fielder. He was routinely peppered among leader boards for defensive stats, from fielding percentage (1.000 with Washington in 2013) to more advanced marks like range factor per game (leading all AL outfielders in 2012.)

Span has the fifth-best stolen base percentage (76.27%) in franchise history (the record, interestingly, belongs to Alexi Casilla.) He relied upon an alter-ego mentality to swipe bags, as he explained later in his career.

He was a part of two Twins playoff teams, hitting .400 in the ‘09 ALDS and .308 the following postseason.

In the first year at Target Field, he tied a major-league record with three triples in the same game.

After another solid season in 2012 (including 3.2 WAR and a 104 wRC+), Span’s career in Minnesota would come to an end. The Twins had spent over $16 million to buy out his arbitration years just before the new ballpark opened. Two years into that agreement, Denard would be shipped off to the Washington Nationals; the Nats had just opened up their first contention window in team history (a window that lasted an impressively long time and produced a championship last season.) Meanwhile, the Twins’ window had suddenly slammed shut, and a pitching-starved organization was on the lookout for arms.

So Span went the way of the nation’s capital, and the Twins brought back Alex Meyer — then a high-ceiling first-round pitching prospect.

Elsewhere

Span led the majors with 11 triples in his first season with Washington, and got his first (and only) MVP votes, finishing 19th overall. The next season, he rode a 29-game hitting streak to an NL-best 184 hits by season’s end, good for a .302 average.

He would hit .301 in an injury-shortened ‘15, a year which began with recovery from a sports hernia, and ended prematurely after a hip issue.

It was a combination of circumstance and bad luck, I think, that resulted in Denard Span never really latching on anywhere after he left Minnesota. When that original Twin contract finally ran out in Washington, Span was hitting free agency for the first time at nearly 32 years old, and coming off hip surgery. By no means had his production fallen off a cliff, but his defense would be taking a backseat, and he was on the wrong side of 30.

Span never hit the market in his prime, and thus never got a big free-agent deal. Still, he was offered a 3/31 contract by the San Francisco Giants with an option - nothing to sneeze at - and remained a full-time starter in center field for the next two seasons. He holds the curious distinction of being the first Giant to land a lead off homer into McCovey Cove.

Two years into the San Fran deal, he went to Tampa Bay in the Evan Longoria trade. A month and a half into his tenure with the Rays, he was flipped to the Mariners, where he put up a 113 OPS+ in 94 games. That was the season in which the Mariners led the division on June 13th, 20 games over .500, and wound up missing the playoffs again.

The end?

Once again, Span’s current fate was decided by the terms of a contract he had signed with a previous team. The Mariners declined their half of a mutual option for the 2019 season that was originally crafted by the San Francisco Giants.

As far as we know, that closes the book on Span. So far, he’s taken the Joe Mauer route of pointing all signs toward retirement without making an official announcement. If he’s really hanging it up, he’ll end his 11-year career with a line of .281/.347/.398, with 185 career steals and an even 28.0 fWAR.

Despite being the odd man out to start his career, Span put up a higher career WAR than Go-Go, and amassed significantly more than Michael Cuddyer, Delmon Young, and Jason Kubel combined.

Despite this, Span never received any significant recognition for his contributions on the field. While guys like Go-Go and Cuddy received various awards and All-Star Game invitations throughout their career, Denard never won a Gold Glove or Silver Slugger, and was never nominated to a Midsummer Classic.

Perhaps if we never signed Nelson Cruz, Denard Span would have had a reunion in Minnesota. I always thought he would have made a nice veteran signing, to pick up some games at DH and serve as a consistent left-handed bat off the bench. He certainly seemed to like the idea of a homecoming when Marney Gellner brought it up in his last season.

Span said he’ll always be a Twin at heart — and I think that’s how we’ll remember him, too.