Gomez wins center-field job

Gomez wins Twins' center-field job

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Twins' center-field race has now been decided, and the winner is Carlos Gomez.

That decision was made clear on Monday morning, when the Twins optioned outfielders Denard Span and Jason Pridie to Triple-A Rochester, leaving the 22-year-old Gomez as the only candidate remaining in camp.

It was the end of what began as a three-player battle at the beginning of Spring Training, and it eventually turned into a two-man race between Gomez and Span.

Span, the Twins' first-round pick in the 2002 First-Year Player Draft, appeared to be the more consistent of the two players this spring. He had a .282 batting average, along with a .404 on-base percentage, and he looked to fit the more typical prototype of a leadoff hitter.

Yet it was the raw talent of Gomez, who hit .278 while recording 10 stolen bases and six RBIs in 16 games this spring, who seemed to sway Twins manager Ron Gardenhire and his staff.

"Overall, it's the excitement that he brings," Gardenhire said of Gomez. "I know there will be some moments where we all scratch our heads and all those things. He brings that extra little flare right now. He's kind of the unknown. We watch him run around and he can ignite a baseball team. Right now, that's what we are looking for -- people who can ignite us and maybe get us to a level everyone says we can't get to."

The news was difficult for Span to take. When Span first arrived at camp, he declared that he was ready for a "battle," and that he was ready to prove he was no longer the forgotten candidate for the spot.

Despite his declarations that the other center-field candidates better bring their "A" games, the race for the spot never turned personal between Span and Gomez. In fact, it was Gomez who first greeted a teary-eyed Span with a hug after his meeting with Gardenhire.

"I told them I understand, business is business," Span said of his meeting. "But my opinion, I feel like I earned it. I felt like I worked hard start to finish. I feel like I played consistent. I feel like I did everything they asked me to do, and it hurts.

"But they told me to go down there to Triple-A and get off to a good start. You just never know. It's a long season. So that's where I'm at."

With the position now officially his, Gomez faces a tough task of trying to replace a seven-time Gold Glove winner who had become a staple in center field for Minnesota.

But Gomez is not oblivious to how difficult it is to take over for a guy like Torii Hunter.

Gomez recalled a conversation he had with Hunter last season, when the Twins played the Mets at Shea Stadium in June. Hunter caught up with Gomez following a play in the field and told the young prospect that he had heard about his talent. He even gave Gomez a nickname.

"He said, 'You like speedy Gonzalez?'" Gomez said. "I say, 'Why?' And he's like, 'When you run, you say something like 'Ahh, Ahh.' I say, 'OK, watch the game and you'll see.'"

The next day, Hunter got a chance to get more of a glimpse of Gomez, and there was nothing but rave reviews.

"He said, 'Oh boy, keep working, you'll be a superstar,'" Gomez said. "I'm so excited like that. A guy like Torii Hunter, talking to me, teaching me. Now I got the opportunity [to take over for him]."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.