Denard Span was drafted by the Twins in the first round in 2002, out of high school in Tampa, Florida. The 20th overall pick, he was considered to be probably the fastest player in the draft and a future Kenny Lofton type, though some scouts doubted how his bat would look against advanced pitching. I gave him a Grade B- in the 2003 book, based on scouting reports as he signed too late to play rookie ball. At the time, people speculated that Span was a five-year project and wouldn't be ready to play in the majors until 2008, when he could theoretically replace Torii Hunter.
Span made his pro debut in 2003, hitting .271/.355/.315 in 50 games for Elizabethton in the Appy League, with 14 steals in 19 attempts. He showed good speed and adequate strike zone judgment, but little power. These types of players usually don't impress me much, and I gave him a Grade C in the '04 book
2004 was similar: .267/.363/.308 for Quad Cities in the Midwest League, with 15 steals. The scouting reports were similar too: lots of speed, works the count pretty well, but no power. He got another Grade C from me.
2005 was different. He began with a .339/.440/.403 line at Class AFort Myers in 49 games, earning a promotion to Double-A New Britain where he went .285/.355/.345 in 68 contests. He combined to steal 23 bases but was caught 12 times. He continued to show good plate disicpline and added a bit more pop in '05. I raised him to Grade C+, noting his progress and the fact that he was still young. I liked the walks but still doubted his power, and worried that the stolen base success ratio was an issue, perhaps indicating that he didn't use his speed well.
Span spent all of 2006 at New Britain, hitting .285/.340/.349 with 24 steals but 11 caught in 134 games. I wrote "He's still young enough to improve, but the numbers have been rock-steady in Double-A for a year and a half now. I can't say I'm too optimistic at this point" about his chances to be a starter rather than a bench player.
Moved up to Triple-A Rochester for '07, Span hit .267/.323/.355 last year with 25 steals and 14 caught. Again, the speed stood out on the field and helped him a lot defensively, but his baserunning instincts seemed to leave a lot to be desired, and the lack of power was a handicap. I gave him another Grade C in the 2008 book, writing that "unless he shows some unusual skill growth, he won't make it as a regular."
Span opened 2008 with the Twins and hit .258/.324/.258 in April, exactly what you would expect based on the minor league record. But things have been different in May, June, and July. He hit .340/.434/.481 in 40 games for Rochester after being sent back down. Since returning to Minnesota, span is 15-for-40 (.375) with ten walks, giving him a major league season line of .324/.429/.423 with five steals but six caught stealing.
So what are we to make of this? Is he showing the "unusual skill growth," or is he just getting lucky in the BABIP department this year? Span is still just 24, so he's hardly old. His plate discipline appears better this year, with a higher walk rate that he has carried to the majors. He is still not showing much distance power and I don't think he ever will. And he still needs to sharpen his baserunning. Sample size is also an issue.
I don't like to declare "big-time breakthrough!!" on the basis of 65 games compared to the rest of his track record. If Span really can hit .300 over a full season and get on base at a .429 clip, obviously he'd be a great leadoff hitter, especially if he can finally improve his steal success rate. But how many guys can really do that? I suspect when all is said and done that Span is "really" a .250-.275 hitter, with a fair number of walks and a decent OBP, but still not develop much power. He will be better than Joey Gathright, but not as good as Lofton was.