Gardenhire: Punto has edge over Casilla in '08

Despite a horrible season at the plate, Nick Punto is on track to get a starting job in the Twins infield next year.

When the Twins traded Luis Castillo to the Mets in July, the belief was that prospect Alexi Casilla would step in next season as the starting second baseman.

On Monday, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire let it be known who is his first choice at the position for 2008.

It's Nick Punto, who hasn't let his tremendous defense suffer this year despite one of the worst offensive seasons in recent major league history. Putting Punto at second would enable the Twins to search for a new third baseman this offseason.

"If we were to start right now I would say Nick would have a head up on [Casilla], believe me there," Gardenhire said. "I know what he can do, catch the ball, and make all the plays. So he's got a lead going into spring training, as far as I'm concerned.

"I hope [Punto] comes out and has a good spring. I like him in my lineup, somewhere. He makes things exciting. But he's got to play [well]. Got to come back and rebound, we all know that."

Punto has played most of the season at third base. While he could make a tidy sum selling DVDs on how to field the position, he is batting only .205 with one homer and 23 RBI and is one slump away from being the first full-time major leaguer since Rob Deer in 1991 to bat under .200 in a season.

In fact, Punto is batting .293 in September, raising his average to its highest mark since Aug. 14.

When told of Gardenhire's comments before Monday's 5-4 victory over Texas, Punto, 29, sounded like someone who had just had a heavy burden lifted.

"For him to have the confidence in me, that means a lot, it really does," said Punto, who hit .290 last season. "I'm going to work as hard as I ever have this offseason and come back and have a very successful season next year."

Casilla, 23, has showed a lot of talent in his stints with the Twins, the latest since being called up from Class AAA Rochester on July 31. But he also has made a rash of mistakes, many of them mental. It has fueled a belief that he needs more development time in the minors.

Casilla, batting .241 with 11 stolen bases in 50 games, was on the bench Monday for a second game in a row after arriving to the ballpark late Sunday, although Gardenhire said it was more because Punto has played well lately.

"He's swinging better, shortened his swing," Gardenhire said of Punto. "He's hitting the ball on the ground. Some balls are rolling through that haven't."

The Twins' six homers from third basemen this season are the fewest in the majors. The club is evaluating Brian Buscher as a possibility. Former first-round pick Matt Moses has floundered in the minors and was demoted to Class AA New Britain during the year.

"It would be nice to have another power bat," Punto said.

Gardenhire said the organization will search for a third baseman with some pop during the offseason. The free-agent pool is not deep: Mike Lowell stands out among a handful of possibilities. The Twins might have to part with a couple of their young pitchers in a deal for a third baseman.

But the manager apparently knows who he wants at second.

"I go into next year thinking [Punto] is going to have a very good opportunity to be my starting second baseman if we get a third baseman," Gardenhire said, "That's what I'm looking for. We have talked about getting a third baseman and getting him back to the middle of the field."

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