June 30, 2009

It's Time for Tolleson

The Minnesota Twins have had a lot of concerns early this season. Some are injuries, but the most are players just not getting the job done. The bullpen has slowly but surely turned a horrible start into a solid season up to this point, the rotation has followed suit as well. Unfortunately, the middle infield problems that was a question mark prior to the season is now leaving everyone completely up in arms.

Alexi Casilla had an outstanding first half to the 2008 season but he leveled off and got injured in the second-half and never looked the same afterward. He was given a huge vote of confidence in the off-season when manager Ron Gardenhire laughed off any media outlet who questioned if Casilla would start the season at second base or if he was in danger of losing his spot. Casilla looked to be back on track in Spring Training when he hit .306/.354/.361 while playing steady defense at second base. But all of that unraveled once the season started.

Casilla all of a sudden could get a hit and lost complete awareness of the strike zone. Despite swinging at 6% more pitches this season, his BABIP dropped .081 points while his batting average dropped .101 points from a year ago. The once patient Casilla now started to swing at nearly 10% more pitches outside of the strike zone than he did a year ago, which is no wonder why his strikeout rate rose 7.2% from 2008. All of this without even mentioning his shaky defense were reasons enough to be demoted to Triple-A. But defense ultimately cost Casilla his roster spot and was the main factor why he ended up in Gardenhire’s “doghouse.”

To replace Casilla, the Twins have used a rotation of Nick Punto, Matt Tolbert and Brendan Harris. Harris has played second base, shortstop and third base, but the Twins believe that second base is his weakest position and if we’re looking at the small sample size, they’re right. According to UZR/150, Harris has played much better defense both at shortstop and third base this season compared to second base. Harris is labeled as a “natural shortstop” and Gardenhire just doesn’t believe he fits right at second base, which is evident with his poor footwork when turning a double play. He also features a very strong arm, which is better suited for shortstop.

Punto and Tolbert are about the same player offensively, although Punto’s defense is far and away superior to Tolbert’s. But both player’s combined are hitting .204 with eight extra-base hits in 269 at-bats. Tolbert is one of Gardenhire’s favorite players due to his ability to run out a ball and play “on his toes.” Unfortunately, Tolbert has played in 40 of 78 games and continues to get starts on a semi-regular basis. It’s been time for his demotion to Rochester for a couple months now and while he and Punto continue to look absolutely worthless offensively, a player in the Minor Leagues looks to be primed to make his Major League debut.

Steven Tolleson has looked outstanding in Rochester, although his defense too has been shaky at times, but more on that in a minute. Tolleson was promoted to Rochester in late May, but has carried an .828 OPS with him through his first 31 games and has maintained steady plate discipline. The former South Carolina Gamecock has just about gone from rags to riches in the last year-and-a-half. A once unknown prospect is now becoming one of the most talked-about prospects in the Twins system, although most of that is due to his counterparts at the Major League level playing so poorly. But nonetheless, he’s on just about everyone’s radar right now.

Tolleson’s defense has never been stellar, but his natural position is believed to be second base. He has found himself playing second, shortstop, third base and left and center field as well. For that reason, I’m not surprised by his 12 errors this season. Although 12 is a little excessive, I’m confident that Tolleson will be able to handle the position better defensively than Tolbert or Casilla. His track record at second base suggests that he could be league average at the position, which is better than what either Tolbert or Casilla can say.

Punto is better defensively, but he doesn’t hit like Tolleson which is where he separates himself from everyone else. Tolleson has hit .298 with 64 extra-base hits including 13 home runs since the start of the ‘08 season. He’s also walked 73 times and has had an on-base percentage of .370, which is something the Twins want from their “piranhas.”

Tolleson’s time in Rochester look more and more numbered every time Tolbert comes to bat. With the trade deadline coming up, and the Twins sitting just four games behind the Tigers, the Twins will need to upgrade second base somehow and what better way to do it from within?

This was originally posted at BaseballDigest.com