Part 3: Twins' middle infield a muddled picture

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 8, 2011 - 2:07 PM

Third in a four-part series: The Twins went with new starters at shortstop and second base, but those crucial positions remain in flux.

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The Twins were counting on Alexi Casilla andTsuyoshi Nishioka to provide speed up the middle.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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The series examines how the Twins have gone from a team that won six division titles in nine seasons to one that is on pace to lose 100 games. The lineup:

Sunday: Joe Mauer's nagging injuries and his hefty $23 million annual salary.

Monday: The failed blueprint for the bullpen.

TODAY: The mess in the middle of the infield.

Wednesday: Disappearance of the "Twins Way."

J.J. Hardy enjoyed his time with the Twins last season and looked forward to returning. The shortstop was surprised when he first heard the club might get rid of him.

With a new vision for their middle infield, the Twins let second baseman Orlando Hudson leave via free agency and traded Hardy to the Orioles.

After General Manager Bill Smith secured the negotiating rights to Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka, the Twins figured they could pair him with Alexi Casilla at shortstop and second base, in some combination.

Money played a big part in those decisions, but manager Ron Gardenhire was also determined to add speed. He pictured these infielders flying all over the diamond, but the experiment hasn't gotten off the ground.

Six games into the season, Nishioka broke a leg trying to turn a double play against the Yankees. Five weeks later, Casilla still appeared to lack confidence on defense and was batting .175. The Twins infield remains in a state of flux, and that's one of the reasons they have the worst record in the majors.

With his left fibula healed, Nishioka started a rehab assignment Monday with Class A Fort Myers, but it's a false premise to think the middle-infield problems will be solved once he returns. His first six games raised more questions than they answered, and though Casilla has emerged from a seven-week slump, there's no telling how well these two will play side by side.

Trading away experience

It's hard enough for one player to establish himself as a major-league starter, yet the Twins opened the year with Nishioka and Casilla in that position. As shaky as it looked the first week with the two in the lineup together, the next eight weeks after Nishioka's injury weren't much better.

Meanwhile, Hardy entered Monday batting .264 with four home runs and 16 RBI. In 30 games at shortstop, he had yet to make an error. Hardy, 28, had two stints on the disabled last year because of a bruised wrist and missed another month this season because of a strained oblique, so he wouldn't have saved the injury-wrecked Twins by himself.

But it's fair to wonder if Twins officials outthought themselves by trading him.

Hudson, 33, was a different story. His endless chattering didn't mesh well with the Twins, and he wound up getting a two-year, $11.5 million deal from the Padres.

With Joe Mauer's salary rising to $23 million, the Twins had tough choices to make, even as their Opening Day payroll stretched to a franchise- record $113 million.

So keeping Hudson was never in the plans, and Hardy can become a free agent this fall. In Nishioka, the Twins saw a player they'd have under control for six years. They paid a $5.3 million posting fee to the Chiba Lotte Marines for his negotiating rights and signed him to a three-year, $9.25 million deal.

In between those transactions, they sent Hardy and infielder Brendan Harris to the Orioles for relief prospects Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson.

One idea would have been keeping Hardy at shortstop with Nishioka at second base. That would have let Nishioka get settled alongside an established veteran.

But it also would have cost the Twins $5.85 million -- Hardy's 2011 salary -- and compromised their desire to add speed.

"We want to get back to pushing the issue on the basepaths," Gardenhire said last fall. "We all know Hardy doesn't run like he used to, and when you're talking about injecting speed, there's only a few places that you can do that, and shortstop is one of them."

The Twins also felt it was time to give Casilla another chance. He stumbled badly when given the Opening Day second baseman's job in 2009, but the team believed Casilla was ready this time.

Perhaps Casilla would have benefitted from breaking into the lineup next to a veteran, too. With Nishioka adjusting to a new team, new culture, new strike zone and the speed of the American game, Casilla -- a player Gardenhire affectionately calls "a loose cannon" -- was asked to be a steadying presence.

The results weren't pretty. Nishioka and Casilla, who both turn 27 in July, showed off their athleticism during spring training, but Gardenhire also noticed communication problems and incorrect positioning on relay throws.

Six regular-season games is hardly enough to draw conclusions, but Nishioka batted .208 (5-for-24) with eight strikeouts and made two errors. The Twins were concerned about his footwork on double plays, and sure enough, he left himself vulnerable when he broke his leg on Nick Swisher's aggressive takeout slide at Yankee Stadium.

Options prove limited

The Twins still have high hopes for Nishioka, and Casilla has played very well since mid-May, but there's no changing the fact the Twins were playing with a weakened middle infield as they spiraled 20 games below .500.

Gardenhire has given Matt Tolbert, Luke Hughes and Michael Cuddyer playing time in the middle infield. A bigger disappointment came after the Twins promoted shortstop Trevor Plouffe from Class AAA Rochester.

Plouffe, who turns 25 this month, was the Twins' first-round draft pick (No. 20 overall) in 2004 and played more than 800 games in their minor-league system.

He did have three home runs and 10 RBI in 18 games while batting .200, but had repeated failures on defense before being sent back to the minors last week. Gardenhire said it's unclear if Plouffe can be an every-day major league shortstop. If not, Plouffe will go down as a miss by the team's scouting and player development departments.

"Trevor Plouffe is a better player than he's shown in the last few weeks," Smith said. "He's going through a tough time right now, and this is part of the adjustments that players have to make. Torii [Hunter], Denard [Span] and others had struggles coming through our system, or early in their careers, and they've turned into pretty good players."

Gardenhire said the plan now is to put Nishioka at shortstop with Casilla at second base. This lets Nishioka move back to the position where he played the past five seasons in Japan.

But when Gardenhire originally moved Nishioka to second base, it was clear the Twins wondered if he had enough arm strength to play shortstop in the majors.

"I'm kind of wide open on this one," Gardenhire said this weekend. "You guys are asking me questions, but I haven't seen [Nishioka] much over there because he didn't do a lot at shortstop in spring training. Early in camp, he told me through [interpreter Ryo Shinkawa] that second base felt more comfortable, and that was only after a couple days."

In other words, it's anybody's guess how this middle-infield configuration will work. Casilla and Nishioka might add speed, but they've also added uncertainty to a team whose trademarks included heady defense as they won six division titles in nine years.

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