FORT MYERS, FLA. - Denard Span was the Twins' first-round draft choice and 20th overall in June 2002. He signed late, and the clock did not start on his professional career until summer 2003, when he was sent to the short-season team in Elizabethton, Tenn.

Matt Moses was the Twins' first-rounder and the 21st overall selection in 2003. He signed in time to play 18 games for the Gulf Coast Twins, the short-season team a rung below Elizabethton on the developmental chart.

"It's hard to believe how fast it can change," Span said. "Two years ago, me and him were the heirs apparent, or whatever you call it. Now, he's over there, and I have to beat the odds over here."

When someone in the home clubhouse at Hammond Stadium says "over there" and nods toward the west, he's talking about the Twins' minor-league complex a few hundred yards across the parking lot.

Moses was taken off the Twins' 40-man roster last winter and passed through the Rule 5 draft in December without being claimed. He was not among the 21 nonroster players given invitations to the big-league camp. He was told to report last week with the minor-leaguers. He also was told to forget third base and to spend his defensive drills with the outfielders.

Span's standing has not fallen that far with the Twins. He remains on the major-league protected list. He has been advertised as one of three candidates to open the season in center field, although there has been much less conversation about him than about Carlos Gomez, or even Jason Pridie.

"Every trade we made -- or tried to make -- this offseason, there was a center fielder involved," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "That should tell you something."

Span, 24, did not need the acquisitions of Gomez from the Mets and Pridie from the Rays to know that he had gone from HA (Heir Apparent) to FP (Failed Prospect) in the view of many.

"I read everything that was said last season: 'He's not ready,' 'He's not the guy,' " Span said. "I used everything I heard like that to light a fire underneath me for this offseason."

He worked out as a lonely figure in his hometown of Tampa, Fla., this winter. A year earlier, he had spent a couple of weeks in Dallas, watching and partaking in Torii Hunter's workout program.

"Torii had a lot going on this winter," Span said. "I didn't want to bother him. Plus, it wasn't about Torii showing me the ropes anymore. He was headed to a new organization. I was the one who had to show up in camp and change some opinions."

Span had a strong spring training for the Twins in 2007, batting .306 with seven RBI in only 36 at-bats. Hunter was entering his final season of his Twins contract, was convinced (rightfully) that he would be gone in 2008, and he often nominated Span as a worthy replacement.

"Everything was positive here a year ago," Span said. "Even when I went over to minor-league camp, I kept hitting. Then, the season opened in Rochester. We were playing in cold, snow and around postponements, and I was hitting .220 a month into the season. I said, 'What's going on? I'm better than this.' "

He was better in the second half, batting .324 in August to finish at .267. Still, he had 90 strikeouts to 40 walks, an awful ratio for a hitter who had only three home runs and 55 RBI.

"I was surprised how much more emphasis was put on my poor first half than a much-better second half," Span said. "Since I came into this organization, I've heard, 'It's not how you start but how you finish,' but that changed, I guess."

Certainly, it has changed in the spring of 2008. Span would have to be an on-base machine over the next two weeks -- and Gomez would have to be overmatched on a daily basis -- for Denard to open the season in center field.

On Sunday, Span batted five times in a 6-4 loss to the Yankees and drew four walks. He drew a walk leading off the fourth to become the first base runner against Yankees righthander Phil Hughes. He is hitting only .214 this spring, but has a .421 on-base percentage.

"They are looking for a center fielder and a leadoff hitter," Span said. "A leadoff hitter is supposed to get on base. That's what I'm trying to do."

Span also is trying to embrace the advice given to him in a phone conversation with Hunter in late February.

"He told me to play with a chip on my shoulder this spring," Span said. "I have that. I'm mad -- not at anyone with the organization, not at anyone in this clubhouse, just at my situation. When there are people saying, 'can't play,' about you, it better make you mad."

Asked about Span after Sunday's four walks, Gardenhire said: "That's what he does. He's a little more advanced, as far as taking pitches and knowing the strike zone. ... He's a little more advanced than the other guy [Gomez]. You can see that right out of the chute.

"That's just a development stage, where they're at. Gomez is more a free-swinger, and Denard is more see-the-ball and work counts.

"Two different players."

Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. and at 4:40 p.m. • preusse@startribune.com