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Experience matters

  • Blog Post by: Nick Nelson
  • February 8, 2011 - 10:22 PM

It seems safe to say that the Twins value the presence of veteran experience on their roster. This has been evident in their personnel moves throughout recent history.

When Jason Bartlett played his way up to the big leagues, Ron Gardenhire blocked him with Juan Castro, preferring the latter's infield leadership.

When Matt Garza and Kevin Slowey were knocking on the big-league door in 2007, the Twins signed Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson to build a reserve and avoid rolling with a bunch of rookie starters.

There was the trade for (and subsequent re-signings of) Carl Pavano to infuse the rotation with veteran depth.

And at the deadline last year, the Twins traded away one of their top prospects for the luxury of a reliever with closing experience at the back end of the bullpen in Joe Nathan's absence.

Over the years, this organization has consistently placed a premium on experience -- sometimes to a fault. So it surprises me that now, in a year where they will start three infielders without much history as major-league regulars, the Twins appear prepared to move forward with no veteran infield depth whatsoever. In fact, it makes me wonder if we won't see another move made sometime this month.

Regardless of your level of optimism regarding the team's middle infield experiment this year, it's important to acknowledge that Alexi Casilla and Tsuyoshi Nishioka are probably going to miss some time between them. Here are the number of games missed by Twins' Opening Day middle-infield combos over the past five years:

2010 (Hudson & Hardy): 97
2009 (Casilla & Punto): 119
2008 (Harris & Everett): 146
2007 (Castillo & Bartlett): 99
2006 (Castillo & Castro): 132

Whether because of injury, poor performance or trade, the Twins have annually gotten far fewer games than expected from their season-opening keystone combos. Unless Casilla and Nishioka can miraculously shatter that trend, we should expect to see other players getting significant time in the middle infield this year.

Last season, the Twins were well equipped to handle injuries from Hudson and Hardy because they had Casilla and Nick Punto in place as backups. Casilla was enjoying one of the best seasons of his career and Punto -- for all the grief he takes -- brings value in his ability to play strong defense at every infield position (most importantly shortstop).

Now Casilla is a starter and Punto is gone; in their stead the Twins figure to count on Matt Tolbert and a stable of marginal, totally unproven minor-leaguers like Trevor Plouffe and Luke Hughes. Being forced to rely on these players as regulars during a pennant race could prove problematic.

All of which is why it might make sense for the Twins to pursue a free agent like Orlando Cabrera here in February. He's now 36 and not very good, but one would think he'd have to be willing to take a low-dollar backup gig at this point, and he strikes me as a better fallback option than Plouffe (at the least, it couldn't hurt to have them both around). Cabrera has a lot of experience playing for contenders, and that was a big reason the Twins acquired him at the trade deadline in 2009 (and later credited him as an important figure in their run to the playoffs).

I have no illusions about Cabrera's caliber as a ballplayer, but he has significant experience playing shortstop in the major leagues, and with Hardy and Punto gone, that's something that no one else currently in the organization can claim. Knowing the Twins, that seems like an issue they'd want to address.

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