Without a suitable backup in center field or at the top of the order for Span, Gardenhire was forced to trot him out there day after day as the Twins chased their sixth AL Central title in nine seasons.
“He wore down at the end of the season,” Gardenhire said. “He had a lot of at-bats. He takes a lot of pitches. He does a lot of things for his teammates. He puts himself in the hole so his teammates can see pitches. He does his job. Now it’s my job to make sure we rest him a little bit more and give him the breaks he needs to get the best out of him.”
He has more options at his disposal this season. Fourth outfielder Jason Repko is with the Twins from the beginning this season. He started 2010 in Triple-A after signing with the Twins and wasn’t called up until June.
Repko also played the last two months of the season with a torn ligament in his left thumb, limiting his production at the plate and requiring surgery in the offseason. Now Repko, a very good defensive player, is healthy and available to play more in center field.
“Coming in last year, not really knowing a lot of guys, it was just different having to adjust and get to know people, know the staff and the coaches and the manager,” Repko said. “But coming into spring training this year, it feels great.”
When the light-hitting Repko is in center field, Gardenhire likely will use one of his two speedy middle infielders _ Tsuyoshi Nishioka or Alexi Casilla _ in the leadoff spot. The increased lineup flexibility this season is another reason Gardenhire can afford to give Span some more rest.
“I have no problem leading off Nishi, leading off Lexi,” Gardenhire said. “They all take pitches. That gives me a little more options with speed at the top of the lineup and a little more maneuverability with my lineup where I can change guys around a little bit.
“Last year I just didn’t have it. I didn’t have a leadoff guy without Span there.”
Span, of course, doesn’t think he needs any rest. He wants to be in the lineup as much as possible.
“I pride myself on being an everyday player and I take that to heart,” Span said. “Playing 162 games, everybody’s going to be nicked up. The good players find a way to play through those little injuries. That’s the type of player I want to be and be remembered for.”
Spoken like a player who spent nearly six years in the minors before finally breaking through in 2008. It’s been a long, slow, and sometimes frustrating climb up the ladder for Span. He signed a five-year, $16.5 million contract before last season and is determined to be in the lineup as much as possible.
He spent some time this offseason making a few minor adjustments to his swing, focusing on bringing his hands back at the start to get his timing corrected.
“This year I’m just focused on putting everything that happened last year behind me,” Span said. “I learned a lot from last year and I think I’m going to be a better player because of it.”