Prospect Retrospective: Denard Span
Yesterday we looked at prospect Alex Meyer, who was traded from the Washington Nationals to the Minnesota Twins for outfielder Denard Span. Span himself is a good topic for discussion, give that his development as a prospect was unusual. Let's take a look.
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 the fastest player in the draft by many observers 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 my 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-A Fort 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 discipline 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 with 25 steals and 14 caught. Again, the speed stood out on the field and helped him a lot defensively, but his baserunning instincts left a lot to be desired, and the lack of power was a significant 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." I thought he was going to be a bench guy.
Span opened 2008 with the Twins and hit .258/.324/.258 in April, exactly what you would expect based on the minor league record. He was sent back down to Triple-A Rochester, then got extremely hot, hitting .340/.434/.481 in 40 games. Promoted back to Minnesota, he finished strongly with a .294/.387/.432 mark, 122 OPS+, with 50 walks and 60 strikeouts in 347 at-bats, along with 18 steals.
He produced far more power in the majors than he'd shown in his entire career at that point. He remained very effective in 2009, hitting .311/.392/.415 with 16 doubles and a league-leading 10 triples, posting a 115 OPS+. Span's offense slumped in 2010 (.264/.331/.348) and an injury-plagued 2011 (.264/.328/.359), but he rebounded in 2012, hitting .283/.342/.395 with a 105 OPS+.
Overall, Span has hit .284/.357/.389 in his Minnesota career, with 254 walks and 321 strikeouts in 2354 at-bats. He's stolen 90 bases in 118 attempts, posted a 104 OPS+, 105 wRC+. His defense has been very impressive, helping give him an overall WAR of 15.9.
In his minor league career, Span was a .286/.355/.356 hitter. His batting average and OBP skills carried forward to the majors without any slippage, and he's shown a bit more power than expected. He was considered a five-year development project when drafted, and indeed it took him five years to figure out how to maximize his skills. But he did it, and the Twins deserve credit for developing him.
There were nine position players picked ahead of Span in 2002. Only three of them (B.J. Upton, Prince Fielder, Nick Swisher) have been more valuable than Span.
2) B.J. Upton, OF, Rays WAR 23.1
7) Prince Fielder, 1B, Brewers WAR 28.1
8) Scott Moore, SS, Tigers WAR -0.1
10) Drew Meyer, SS, Rangers WAR -0.2
11) Jeremy Hermida, OF, Marlins WAR 2.9
13) Khalil Greene, SS, Padres WAR 9.4
14) Russ Adams, 2B, Blue Jays WAR -0.9
16) Nick Swisher, OF, Athletics WAR 26.3
19) James Loney, 1B, Dodgers WAR 8.8
Overall, Span is a very solid player and turned out to be more valuable than I thought he would be earlier in his career. It makes sense for the Twins to trade him though. He's likely at his peak career output right now, and their farm system has several very promising outfield prospects on the way up, including a pair (Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia) who should be ready to contribute within the next year or two. The system needs impact pitching arms, and Meyer provides that.