Stars of the AFL: Denard Span

You just don't see it very often, so it stands out. The biggest jump in Minor League baseball, and everybody, players, coaches, scouts, will tell you it's the truth, is from Hi-A ball to Double-A ball. The best struggle. In fact it happens so often that organizations tend to promote players who are having good first halves in Hi-A midseason, so that they can make the adjustment the second half of the year. Everybody struggles.

So it stands out when Minnesota Twins prospect Denard Span manages to hit .285 in his first trip to Double-A. A centerfielder with blazing speed who many have tapped as Tori Hunter's replacement at the Metrodome, Span was supposed to fall on his face in Double-A this year, so that he could excel next year. What gives?

"It's the same game," Span says before a game in the Arizona Fall League, "the biggest difference is that everybody gets more precise. The pitchers hit their spots, but they're throwing the same pitches they were in Hi-A."

Apparently a movie buff, Span smiles as he delivers the next line.

"All you can do is see the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball."

Well, maybe he was smiling about the line, or maybe he was smiling because Reggie Abercrombie was still heckling him. Abercrombie started on Span the minute a reporter asked for an interview. Span asks forgiveness and he hollers at Abercrombie to shut up.

He might want to get used to people talking to him. The worst kept secret in baseball is that the Twins are looking to unload Hunter and his contract, meaning they'll be looking for someone to replace the perennial Gold Glove winner who has taken the Twins to the playoffs nearly every year he's been there.

"The Twins drafted me in '02 for a reason," Span says about replacing a minor legend, "I know the Minnesota fans would be sad if Tori left, but the Twins are doing what they think is best."

Does that opportunity put more pressure on him, or does it motivate?

"I've never turned down a challenge in my life," Span says, smiling again, "I'm a competitor, if the Twins offer me the opportunity to play in the big leagues next year, I'm ready to go.

"I'm really working on everything," Span continued, "I've been playing some left field, so I'm ready for that, I'm working on my bunting. [Florida Marlins roving hitting instructor] John Mallee has been working with me everyday in the cages. I'm just trying to get better."

That's the underlying goal with every playing in the Arizona Fall League. Get better. The top prospects are trying to prove they belong, the lesser knowns are trying to make a name for themselves, some guys are coming off injuries and others are coming off disappointing seasons. But everybody is in the same boat, everybody's trying to get better. It takes a lot to make somebody stand out among this group of prospects, because they are all good.

So after last season, and the work he's putting in here, will Denard Span be ready for the big leagues next season?

"Let's do the same interview next year when I debut, and I'll tell you then."


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