March 12, 2008

Twins have options at Second

Last season, Luis Castillo was traded in July to make room for the up and coming Alexi Casilla at second base. Although he put together a solid 4 month 'audition' by hitting .302 with great defense, the Twins 'only' got an aging catching prospect in Drew Butera and a solid outfielder in Dustin Martin. Many thought the Twins could've gotten more, or should have gotten more, but that was not the case. However, many were ecstatic at the thought of Casilla gaining experience in order to take over the starting job this season. But unfortunately, that wasn't the case.

The 23-year-old Casilla made many mistakes on and off the field, including a time where he arrived late to a game and was in manager Ron Gardenhire's "doghouse" for the remainder of the season. He certainly did not leave a very good taste in the mouth of the manager's and Gardenhire later went as far as to say that Nick Punto was (most likely) going to start at second base next season, basically disregarding any sort of competition between Punto and Casilla.

Then in late November, a gift that some still might think came from the heavens above, the Twins acquired Delmon Young from the Tampa Bay Rays. Along with Young, the Twins also acquired infielder Brendan Harris. Harris, had a very solid season in 2007 with the Rays. Playing mostly shortstop, he hit .286/.343/.434 with 12 home runs and 59 RBI's last season in 521 plate appearances last season. The Twins would love to see him duplicate those numbers, or even improve on them, but one thing could hold him back, his defense.

To put it into perspective, Brendan Harris allowed 11 errors in 87 games at shortstop. In fact, if he qualified, he would've ranked last in the league in both Zone Rating and Range Factor as a shortstop. However, as a second baseman, although he would've ranked last in Range Factor, he would've been league average in Zone Rating and his 1 error in 47 games would've become about 4 (give or take) throughout an entire season. That would've ranked him 2nd in the league only behind Gold Glove Winner Placido Polanco. Basically what this shows is that as a shortstop, Harris is dreadful, but as a second baseman, he is at least average.

But Harris, Punto, and Casilla aren't the only three players that seem to be vying for the job, although they do seem to be the most likely to win.

Matt Tolbert is also hoping to crack a spot on the roster, and Ron Gardenhire has already said that he will not use him as a utility player. He instead views Tolbert as an everyday player, so it's all or nothing for Tolbert. After hitting .337 between April and June, he took a nosedive the rest of the season hitting .249 from July and September. Tolbert was at one point in time moved to third base to take over for Nick Punto, but the arrival of the next person on this list shot that plan down. Tolbert can play a variety of positions, but like Harris, he's best valued at second base.

Brian Buscher is not a player many would consider for the second base job, and to be frank, I don't see him winning the job at all. But nonetheless, he is an option. As much as I like Buscher, he just would be too much of a liability on defense to be able to justify having him in the middle of the infield. His bat is probably the best out of this group, however his defense would make any of these guys mentioned look like Roberto Alomar at second. I believe that Ron Gardenhire is only considering him at second base in a reserve role, however it is something to keep an eye on. If his defense was even close to any of the guys mentioned, I would be all for having him in the linepu. However, our lineup in my opinion is improved over last season as is, so there's no need to abandon our defensive philosophy just to have a (slightly) better hitter in the lineup.

Tommy Watkins is also a guy fighting for a roster spot, and although he's unlikely to win a starting job, if anyone on this list deserves it, it'd be him. Watkins has spent 10 seasons in the organization and finally made his Major League debut last season. In his (very) limited time with the Twins last season, he impressed many with his versatility and his great approach at the plate. I don't see him having anything more than just an "average" year for a second baseman, but he's definitely fighting for a backup job and if he begins to hit the cover off the ball, he could challenge for a starting spot, although even I know that's very unlikely to happen.

With that said, (and obviously, things can change between now and then, but) I believe that Nick Punto will start at second base on opening day. And it won't be because he won the position, instead I believe that it will have to do quite a bit on who's pitching. Livan Hernandez looks to be destined to start opening night and he is a sinker-ball pitcher which means that there will be plenty of ground balls for the infielders to have their hands full with. I think the team would like to start the season out on a good foot (defensively) and Punto would likely give us that. I'm not saying Punto will play every time a groundball pitcher is on the mound, because that would likely be 3-4 times per week, but I do believe that at least to begin the season, the pitchers would probably appreciate the fact that Punto can help them out more than Harris could and it should put (even if only a little) less stress on the pitchers, which should result in better outings by our starters.