This past Saturday saw the Minnesota Twins make a Minnesota Twins-like move in signing lead off hitter and centerfielder Denard Span to a 5 yr/$16.5 million contract. The details of the contract as you can see (if you clicked on the link) are ridiculous in their reasonableness. The per year salaries increase conservatively, buying out multiple arbitration eligible years for the certainty that goes with a long term contract.
Given that he's only going to be 26 this season, the best is probably yet to come. Even if it doesn't come and 2009 is the high water mark in his career, none of the per season salary values are out of line with what his on field production would be. After playing only part of the 2008 with the Twins, Span broke out in 2009, turning in a 3.9 win season. This deal ends when Span will be the ripe old age of 31. Certainly seems rather low risk/high reward for Minnesota.
Just one year ahead of Span, in terms of ML experience, is Hunter Pence. The Astros chose to go to arbitration with Hunter in lieu of attempting to sign him to a long term contract. He will earn $3.5 million this season after rebounding well in 2009 after a disappointing sophomore slump campaign in 2008.
Of course when a player of similar age and position signs a new contract, I get interested in what the Astros are going to do with Pence. Does Ed Wade wait and see how Hunter does to start the season in 2010 and begin to think beyond the one year increments that has been the approach with not only him but Michael Bourn? At this juncture, with potentially so much payroll coming off the books after this season, I think this is the prudent approach to take.
Perhaps with a player like Span, the Twins see less room for either great improvement or great regression in terms of skills and overall performance. Denard is a high contact rate, high walk guy whose career numbers indicate that he isn't likely to deviate from that trajectory. Defensively Span wasn't all that well thought of in centerfield, which should be interesting this season since Carlos Gomez now plays across the Mississippi River in Wisconsin for Milwaukee. That shouldn't take away from the positives of this contract for the Twins, as they showed faith in a player whose performance in 2009 looks very repeatable in the years going forward.
As for Pence, we know that he will most likely never be a .400 OBP player, but he should make up for this short coming by hitting the ball harder and farther much more than Denard Span. I would tend to believe that with his skill set Hunter offers the Astros much more room for both success and failure (relatively speaking). Without the sort of plate discipline and contact skills as Span, our Right Fielder can fall into greater slumps at the plate, but his power bat can push Pence past Span offensively all things being equal.
2010 hasn't even started for our Astros, but if you'll allow me to look ahead to 2011, you will see a team that looks much different than this season's. The only guarantees to be here (barring trades) among those players currently under multi year contracts are Brandon Lyon, Carlos Lee and Roy Oswalt. Option seasons are available for Brett Myers, Lance Berkman and Geoff Blum, but it's entirely possible that none of those players return...even Lance. Raises will be due to Pence, Bourn and Wandy Rodriguez in some form or fashion, whether it be via arbitration or a longer term contract. The Astros will have payroll flexibility, something that has not been the case since before the Clemens/Kent/Pettitte years. If Hunter Pence performs as well as we think he can, it will be exciting to see if the Astros heed the lessons learned from Denard Span's new contract with Minnesota.