FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Denard Span has a message for his two fellow competitors in the race for the Twins' starting center field job this spring. "I'm ready for war, so I hope they are ready," Span said when he reported to Twins camp on Wednesday. "I hope they bring their 'A' game, because I've had all offseason to just get ready for this. This is the opportunity I've been waiting for my whole life." The Twins' first round pick in the 2002 First-Year Player Draft, Span was tagged early on in his career as the eventual replacement for Torii Hunter. But when Hunter left the Twins this offseason, signing a five-year, $90 million contract with the Angels, it was not an automatic that Span would get the job.
After struggling for most of the first half at Triple-A Rochester last season, Span didn't even earn a September callup. A question remained of whether Span would be ready to take over in center field for the start of the '08 season, and the Twins pursued other options for the spot over the course of the offseason. They acquired two center-field options in two separate trades -- Jason Pridie from Tampa Bay and Carlos Gomez from the Mets. "There was talk in this organization that Denard Span might not be ready, and if he's not ready, then we have to have a center fielder," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "So you prepare yourself for that." After having what he felt was a strong spring in which he hit .306 in 17 Grapefruit League games, Span didn't produce right away in his first stint at Triple-A Rochester. He hit just .214 in April and May and said he struggled to figure out what was going on with his swing. Span said that while he didn't realize it at the time, he felt that Hunter's situation put some added pressure on the center fielder. Knowing that the Twins could possibly trade Hunter by the All-Star break if the team was struggling, Span felt he had to produce immediately to show the he was ready. But the struggles were a learning experience for Span, who has yet to repeat a level in the Minor Leagues. He said it made him "become a man." "I had never been at a lower point," Span said. "After the spring, I knew I was ready for the big leagues. I felt that in my mind and my heart. So then going to Rochester in April and May and scuffling and struggling, I was kind of confused like, 'What is going on?'" Following that low point, Span rebounded over the course of the next few months, even hitting .330 in August. But it still didn't earn him a look in the big leagues in September. Span was asked Wednesday if he felt like the Twins organization had lost confidence in him following the rough start. "I think so," Span said. "I kind of feel like everybody turned their back on me," he added. "But I turned [my season] around. I knew I was better than what I had showed in the first half. I just kept coming to early hitting and watching film of myself to continue to try and get better. I didn't give up, not once."
The Twins say they still view Span as one of the key contenders for their center-field spot."I have a lot of confidence in that young man," Gardenhire said. "I like that young man. I like the way he plays. I like his attitude. I like his athletic ability. He's going to have to go out there and play on the field. It's up to him, not me." While much of the attention has been focused on Gomez, who is considered to be the most Major League ready of the four prospects the Twins received from the Mets in exchange for Johan Santana, Span seems eager to prove that he can still be the player the Twins felt they drafted in '02. "From where I come from ... you just don't allow somebody to come in your house and take something you worked hard for," Span said of the spot. "I'm just ready for this challenge. I've never been afraid of competition." Getting close to form: Jesse Crain was back on the mound Wednesday for his second bullpen session of the week. The right-hander, who is coming off right shoulder surgery last May to repair a torn rotator cuff and a torn labrum, has appeared to gain back much of his strength, popping many pitches into the glove of catcher Jeff Christy on Wednesday, but Crain said that he feels he is still about 80 percent right now. "It's taking a little getting used to again," Crain said of all the activity. "I feel good now but I think that whenever I face hitters, that's when I will really see how I feel." Right now the plan for Crain is to have him throw every other day, at least for the first few weeks of camp. Pitching coach Rick Anderson said that the club is being cautious with Crain, trying not to rush the pitcher since there are still nearly six weeks remaining until Opening Day. "We're just going to watch it," Anderson said. "Even if he said he's starting to feel great, we're just going to be cautious with him. Getting him ready for the season is the big thing." Maturity question? Delmon Young has yet to report to his first Spring Training with the Twins, but already his name has created quite a buzz around his former team. Tampa Bay Rays left fielder Carl Crawford arrived at camp on Tuesday and said that the best part of this year's Spring Training for his club would be that Young and fellow rookie outfielder Elijah Dukes are no longer there. Young, who earned notoriety after tossing a bat at an umpire in a Triple-A ballgame back in 2006, spent the majority of his time at TwinsFest this January talking of how he feels he's grown up quite a bit in recent years and he's excited about a "second chance" with the Twins. But the comments by Crawford, 26, made it seem like he felt Young's maturation was not quite complete. "They're both just young players who've got some growing up and maturing to do." Crawford said. "I just don't think the maturing part would have happened over here. It might happen somewhere else, but at the pace they were going, I don't think they would have matured over here because they had too much free range to do whatever they wanted to. ... It was just one of those things where they just needed to grow up a little bit. "They could do whatever they wanted to do and they did whatever they wanted to do. Being loud, talking too much, saying whatever they wanted to whoever they wanted to say it to. There weren't no rules for those guys. Now they're going to go somewhere where they have rules, so I don't know what's going to happen then." Travel update, Day 3: The Twins received some good news Wednesday as to when two of their players might be arriving to camp. Alexi Casilla's visa appointment with the U.S. Consulate in the Dominican Republic, originally re-scheduled for March 11, has been moved up to Thursday. Casilla missed his initial appointment last week due to what Smith called a "legitimate family medical emergency." Depending on how quickly Casilla's visa is processed, Smith said there is a chance that the infielder could be in camp by Saturday -- the first official full-squad workout. Left-hander Dennys Reyes, who received an updated passport yesterday, is expected to arrive in Fort Myers on Wednesday night and will take part in his first workout with the team Thursday. Reyes missed the first three days of camp after realizing last week that his passport was to expire soon. Smith said he has received no official update on the status of Francisco Liriano's visa saga. The 24-year-old left-hander is awaiting the processing of his visa in the Dominican Republic after undergoing a sobriety test and an alcohol counseling session. The extended process was due to new mandates from the U.S. State Department that stemmed from Liriano's 2006 drunken driving arrest. The hope is still that Liriano might be in camp by the end of the weekend. Twins tidbits: Gardenhire reiterated on Wednesday that he expects the Twins to break camp with 12 pitchers. Right-handers Joe Nathan, Pat Neshek, Matt Guerrier and Juan Rincon and lefty Reyes are considered to be locks for the bullpen, with Crain expected to be in the group if he's fully healthy. That leaves one spot open and it likely will be used for a long reliever, although Gardenhire didn't rule out a second lefty out of the 'pen. ... A handful of position players checked in on Wednesday, including Mike Lamb, Craig Monroe, Darnell McDonald and Matt Tolbert. The only notable position players that have yet to arrive are Jason Kubel, Casilla and Young. Quotable: "I've only had one GM before, and we were fine. We never butted heads -- bald on bald is not good." -- Gardenhire, referring to former Twins GM Terry Ryan
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.