Showcase : : Story
Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Span among ’01 National elite

Jeff Dahn        

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Perfect Game USA’s first National Showcase, staged June 15-17, 2001, at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., put on display 13 players who were eventually made 1st round picks in the MLB June Amateur Draft.

The list is impressive and features the likes of Prince Fielder, B.J. Upton, Scott Kazmir, Jeff Clement, Lastings Milledge and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. There was also a young player at Tropicana in 2001 who went by the name of Joseph Votto  on his PG profile and was a 2nd round selection of the Cincinnati Reds.

And another of those 1st round picks was a kid out of Tampa (Fla.) Catholic High School (2002) named Denard Span who was attending his first PG event in an effort to get noticed by professional scouts and college coaches.

He made quite an impression.

“Span has Major League outfielder written all over him,” a Perfect Game scout reported after Span’s performance, which included a 6.65-second 60-yard dash. “The plus speed that he possesses seems to be more playable than other speedsters. … He has an extremely fast bat and his home-to-first times are right up there with anyone.”

Span earned a perfect 10.0 in PG’s grading system, and one year later was taken by the Minnesota Twins with the 20th overall pick of the 2002 Draft.

Today, at age 27, he is set to begin his third season as the two-time American League Central Division Champion Twins’ starting centerfielder while batting at the top of Manager Ron Gardenhire’s lineup. It’s been almost 10 years since Span walked out on the field at Tropicana for that inaugural PG National, and a lot has transpired over the years.

“It’s been a while now. I’m getting old,” Span said with a laugh while speaking on the field at Hammond Stadium – the spring training home of the Twins – before a Grapefruit League game against the Tampa Bay Rays on March 19.

“I just remember going to Perfect Game and playing against the top talent from around the country,” he said. “It was good for me because I got a chance to see the Scott Kazmirs, the B.J. Uptons, and see the best of the best from around the country. It was good exposure for me.”

It was that experience of playing “the best of the best” at such an impressionable age that still resonates with Span. He used it to soak up as much baseball knowledge as he could from his talented peers.

“Being in high school and seeing the top players from around the nation, it definitely helped me to elevate my game,” Span said. “(It was beneficial) just to be surrounded by other top prospects and athletes.”

After signing with the Twins, Span spent five full seasons in the minor leagues and split his time between Minnesota and Triple-A Rochester in 2008 (93 games with Minnesota, 40 with Rochester). He made his Major League debut with the Twins on April 6, 2008.

Span hit .294 with six home runs, 47 RBI, 16 doubles, seven triples and 16 stolen bases in his abbreviated ’08 big league season. He established himself as a legitimate everyday player in 2009 when he hit .311with eight home runs, 16 doubles, 10 triples, 68 RBI, 97 runs scored and 23 stolen bases in 145 games.

Span’s numbers dropped off dramatically last season when he hit .264 with three home runs, 58 RBI and 85 runs (153 games). He did, however, steal a career-high 26 bases while being caught only four times.

“Last year was a very humbling year for me,” Span told Kelly Thesier of MLB.com in a March 15 interview. “I definitely had time this offseason to reflect on last year. A lot of my motivation going to the gym came from some of the things that happened. But it’s nothing new. I’ve been through this up and down throughout the minor leagues.”

Span played well in two AL Division Series against the New York Yankees in 2009 and ’10, hitting a combined .357 (10 for 28) with a .357 on-base percentage.

“It’s been quite a ride; it’s been a roller-coaster ride,” Span said of his progression from his high school and Perfect Game days to his spot in a big league’s club opening day lineup for the third straight season.

“I spent five (full) seasons  in the minor leagues, and if you would have asked me back then when I was 17 if I had any idea of what I was about to go through, I wouldn’t have been able to fathom what it was going to be like. I’m glad I’m here today, standing tall and talking to you. I’m in good health, good spirits, so I’m feeling good. I’m just ready for the season to start.”

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