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Prospect Retrospective and Career Profile: Denard Span, OF, Nationals

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Denard Span
Denard Span
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

One of my projects this year is to re-evaluate the ranking and rating process for speed players. Denard Span is a good case study and we'll do Brett Gardner tomorrow.

Denard Span was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the first round in 2002, from high school in Tampa, Florida. The 20th-overall choice, he was compared to Kenny Lofton as a pure athlete with excellent speed but with questions about his power. He signed late and didn't get into any professional games that summer. I gave him a default Grade B- in the 2003 book, noting that he was athletic enough to play Division I football but was a smart guy and chose the better sport instead.

Assigned to rookie-level Elizabethton in 2003, Span hit .271/.355/.319 with 14 steals, 23 walks, and 34 strikeouts in 207 at-bats. He was impressive defensively and showed obvious speed and athleticism, and his strike zone judgment wasn't bad. But the lack of power was extreme: .048 isolated power, and there were serious questions about how his bat would play against more powerful pitching. I gave him a Grade C in the 2004 book, noting the athleticism again but worrying that the bat would not be strong enough.

2004 was similar: .267/.363/.308 with 34 walks, 49 strikeouts, 15 steals in 240 at-bats for Quad Cities in the Midwest League. I had the opportunity to see him in person and he looked exactly like the stats would imply: very fast, decent eye, but with no strength in the bat and unable to get the ball past the infield. I did note that "he is still very young, he is willing to work the count, and he's not so small that he can't develop a bit of pop in time." "Grade C for now" was the conclusion.

Span opened 2005 with Fort Myers in the Florida State League, hitting .339/.410/.403 with 22 walks, 25 strikeouts, and 13 steals in 186 at-bats. Promoted to Double-A New Britain, he hit .285/.355/.345 with 22 walks, 41 strikeouts, and 10 steals. Distance power was still not an asset but there was a bit more punch in the bat, enough to scoot the ball into the outfield for more frequent line drive hits anyway. He moved up to Grade C+ but still looked more like a fourth outfielder to me than a potential regular.

Returning to New Britain for 2006, he hit .285/.340/.349 with 40 walks, 78 strikeouts, and 24 steals in 35 attempts in 536 at-bats. This was extremely similar to what he did in 2005, not slumping but now showing any growth either. He projected as a future .250/.320/.330 hitter at that stage and I moved him back to Grade C with a reserve outfielder tag.

Sent to Triple-A Rochester for 2007, he hit .267/.323/.355 with 40 walks, 90 strikeouts, 25 steals in 39 attempts over 487 at-bats. Take the Triple-A air out of that and you come up with the .250/.320/.330 projection in the majors again. I wrote that he wouldn't make it as a regular and had him as a Grade C again.

The logic was sound. It was also wrong. Span opened 2008 with a .340/.434/.481 line at Rochester, the best 40 games of his professional life to that point. Promoted to the majors, he hit .294/.387/.432 in 347 at-bats for the Twins, with 50 walks, 60 strikeouts, and 18 steals. He maintained his plate discipline, did a better job using his speed on the bases, and materialized more power than could have been logically anticipated. He hit six homers for the Twins. His previous career-high was three. His Isolated Power was doubled compared to what he was doing in the minors.

Denard Span, 2009

Denard Span, 2009, photo by Bruce Kluckhohn, Getty Images

Span earned a regular job with this run and kept it in 2009 (.311/.392/.415, 4.1 fWAR). He played regularly in 2010 (.264/.331/.348) but with less success, more in line with his minor league numbers. He had a similar season in 2011, rebounded a bit in 2012, then was traded to the Washington Nationals. His '14 season was quite solid, .302/.355/.416. 4.0 fWAR, his best campaign since '09. He led the National League in hits.

Overall, Span has hit .286/.352/.392 in 3574 major league at-bats, with 141 steals, 346 walks, and 463 strikeouts, 22.5 fWAR. His speed, on-base abilities, and defense have made him quite valuable, and he's shown enough pop to the gaps to keep the pitchers honest.

Although Span didn't turn into Kenny Lofton, his list of comparable players by Sim Score is throwbackish but very respectable: Jerry Mumphrey, Cesar Tovar, Steve Finley, Elmer Valo, Mickey Rivers, Lou Finney, Steve Evans, Gene Richards, Johnny Bates, and Jack Smith.

So what do we make of this? Span hit .286/.356/.356 in 563 games in the minor leagues. In the majors he's hit .286 (exactly the same) with a .352 OBP (virtually the same) but with .392 SLG, that's 36 points more isolated power in the majors than he showed in the minors and much higher than what he was doing at the lowest levels.

This is the player Twins scouts projected he could be in high school. It took him five years to develop enough pop to survive, but develop it he did. You can, of course, find many examples of similar speed players who never develop enough strength to make it, but the fact remains that Span did make it, and the Grade C marks turned out to be too low.

Tomorrow we will look at Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner. Feel free to suggest other speed-oriented players for analysis.