FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — It seems like everything has happened so fast for Denard Span.
In just over a year and a half in the big leagues, Span has cemented himself as the leadoff hitter and everyday center fielder for the Minnesota Twins, taking over the position once held by fan favorites Kirby Puckett and Torii Hunter.
Then you look at how long it took him just to make it to the majors in the first place, and it quickly becomes clear that Span's rise has been anything but easy.
"It's almost hard to put into words," said Span, who recently signed a five-year, $16.5 million contract. "It probably won't hit me until opening day when I run out and grab a snowball in center field."
When Span runs out to center field on April 12 in the Twins' home opener for the new Target Field ballpark, he will finally be fulfilling the promise he showed when the Twins took him with their first-round draft choice in 2002.
He is finally taking over for Torii.
There was a time in the minor leagues when Span thought he may never make it.
Five years after being drafted, Span was hitting just .267 for Triple-A Rochester and striking out more than twice as many times as he was drawing walks, not the kind of numbers expected of a leadoff hitter.
"We draft a lot of high school players," general manager Bill Smith said. "(Joe) Mauer, (Justin) Morneau, Span, (Michael) Cuddyer, (Jason) Kubel. Watching them come up, every year they're among the youngest players in the league. They've got to fight through that. They've got to make adjustments."
Hunter was also drafted out of high school and got off to a slow start in the minors. Eventually he emerged as one of the best defensive center fielders in the game and a capable power hitter, qualities that earned him a $90-million contract from the Los Angeles Angels in 2008.
The departure of Span's role model opened the door for him to finally get a shot with the big club. But even after a superb spring that season, he started in Triple-A while the Twins elected to go with Carlos Gomez, the young, exciting and erratic player acquired from the Mets in a trade for Johan Santana.
"In the minor leagues, I thought as long as I played pretty decent baseball, my time was going to come just because it was going to come," Span said. "When it didn't come, that's when it humbled me. It made me look at myself in the mirror and just want to work harder. It put an extra drive in me that I didn't think I had."
Span tore up Triple A in 2008, hitting .340 with a .434 on-base percentage, practically forcing the Twins to call him up when Gomez struggled at the plate. Once he got a chance in the lineup, Span never came out.
The smooth lefty quickly — again, relatively speaking — emerged as the disciplined, professional leadoff man the Twins sorely lacked, a focused grinder who takes pitchers deep into counts and sets the table for the big hitters behind him.
And no matter where they put him in the outfield, he excelled. His versatility and ability to switch positions mid-game made him invaluable to manager Ron Gardenhire.
"He just took off," Gardenhire said. "I didn't expect it. I didn't know what to expect, really. Then all of a sudden, he was getting on base four or five times a game."
Last year, Span was a member of a crowded outfield that included Gomez, Cuddyer and Delmon Young. Despite shuffling between all three outfield spots he hit .311 with 10 triples, 23 steals and 97 runs scored.
Now he can just show up to the ballpark and know he's going to be in center field.
"I don't think anybody's seen my maximum ability in the major leagues because I've been in right, center, left, right, center," Span said. "I haven't played my natural position. It's going to be an adjustment at first. I haven't played center field in two years. But I think once spring training's over, I think everybody's going to see that center field was my natural position."
The Twins are so confident in his abilities that they didn't bring in another outfielder to serve as a primary backup. The significance of that show of faith is not lost on him.
"I would have appreciated it, but not the way I appreciate it now because of what I went through," Span said. "Not knowing if I would ever be in the major leagues. That's how I felt at one time. ... Now to say I'm the center fielder. I understand what it means to be the center fielder of this team. I'm ready. I know I'm ready."