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FORT MYERS, FLA. - It has become an annual rite of spring for the Twins: Head to Florida and try to figure out who's playing shortstop.
This year, it's Jamey Carroll, a free-agent pickup who was with the Dodgers last season. He is 38 years old but has been resilient, competitive and reliable throughout a major league career that didn't begin until he was 28. The Twins hope he is the short-term solution at short.
The club is in the middle of a run of instability at short that dates back to the trade that sent Jason Bartlett to Tampa Bay after the 2007 season. Since then, the Twins have had nine players man the position. None has started more than 95 games. The past four Opening Day starters? Alexi Casilla (2011), J.J. Hardy ('10), Nick Punto ('09) and Adam Everett ('08).
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire has penciled in Carroll at short and in the No. 2 spot in the batting order.
"I know how old he is and there are some areas that people will question," Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said, acknowledging concerns about Carroll's range. "We're all aware of that stuff, but he will grind out games.
"And I haven't had anyone get more superlatives about makeup than I have about Jamey Carroll. Any manager that has had him has loved him."
The Twins signed him to a two-year, $6.5 million deal, hoping they have found stability. For now, anyway.
Why haven't the Twins been able to find a shortstop?
"It's a tough position to find because, No. 1, you're looking for defense," Ryan said. "You're looking for an athlete and if you can find someone who can play defense and make all the plays ... they are few and far between when it comes to a guy who can hit in the middle of the order."
Carroll is expected to replace Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who moved to shortstop last season after recovering from a broken leg. Nishioka began the season at second base but was shaky defensively at both positions.
"We had so much difficulty last year in picking up the routine plays that, all of a sudden, we're extending innings and the guy on the mound is into his pitch count and we're overexposing our bullpen because of our defense," Ryan said. "We needed to do something."
Carroll is a model of perseverance. A 14th-round pick in 1996, he spent seven seasons in Montreal's farm system before getting called up, and even that was as much luck as anything. His major league career started in September 2002 because he had returned to his home in Evansville, Ind., at the completion of the minor league season, and the Expos were playing the Cubs in Chicago and needed someone quick.
"The second day I was playing," Carroll said, "I was the oldest guy on the field."
Except for a rehabilitation stint in 2009, Carroll hasn't been back to the minors since. He's a career .278 hitter in the majors with a .356 on-base percentage. Last year with the Dodgers, he broke his finger late in spring training but played anyway. Why?
"I had a chance to make my first Opening Day start at second base," he said.
Cristian Guzman was the Twins shortstop the year Carroll broke into the majors. Guzman left after 2004 and Bartlett eventually took over for good in 2006.
Who knew how one move in November 2007 -- moving Bartlett and Matt Garza to the Rays in a package for Delmon Young and Brendan Harris -- would affect the Twins so much down the road? The Twins sought a young power bat in Young and decided to deal Bartlett, who had developed into a capable player.
"When we lost Bartlett, that was the most frustrating thing for me," Gardenhire said. "I thought we had Bartlett where we wanted him. So when we made the trade with Bartlett, then I was frustrated. But it is what it is. I wanted Bartlett to stay here. I thought we had gotten him to the point where we wanted, so I was not on the Bartlett side of the trade."
With Bartlett gone, the Twins signed Everett as a free agent for 2008, but the veteran played only 48 games and hit .213. Longtime utility infielder Punto got the Opening Day nod in 2009, but the Twins acquired veteran Orlando Cabrera at the trade deadline. He wasn't re-signed after the season, and the Twins swung a deal with Milwaukee for 2007 All-Star Hardy, who then spent two stints on the disabled list in 2010.
With talks to bring Nishioka from Japan in the works that December, the Twins dealt Hardy to Baltimore, where he hit a career-high 30 home runs last season. Casilla, last year's Opening Day shortstop, is expected to start at second this year but hasn't played more than 98 games in a season.
When teams scout teenagers, they often focus on shortstops and center fielders, who usually are the best athletes. And many shortstops don't stick at that position as their skills or bodies change.
The Twins drafted Michael Cuddyer in the first round in 1997 and knew he would, at least, end up a third baseman. Trevor Plouffe was taken as a shortstop and played there most of his minor league career, but now he is being moved to the outfield. The Twins signed Dominican prospect Miguel Sano, one of their top prospects, as a shortstop, but his ticket to the majors is expected to be at third base.
Come draft day, most teams select the best player available and not because of need. The Twins, however, did select three shortstops in the first nine rounds of last year's draft: Levi Michael (first round), Tyler Grimes (fifth) and Adam Bryant (ninth).
It appeared as if they were trying to address a specific need. Ryan said that last year the Twins drafted the best player they thought was available in Michael, but Grimes and Bryant were selected because of need.
"We ended up drafting three shortstops," said Mike Radcliff, Twins vice president, player personnel. "We like them all. Grimes, the guy we got in the fifth round, we thought he was better than that [round]. The guy we got in the ninth round, we liked him a lot higher than the ninth round."
The Twins do have a shortstop prospect they believe is close to the majors in Brian Dozier, who is in camp and has a chance to debut this season. Dozier has a .382 on-base percentage in the minors and, the Twins believe, has the requisite range and arm to hold down the position. Michael, a college star at North Carolina, also could move quickly through the system.
The Twins view Carroll as the bridge to Dozier and hope the veteran can be a mentor this spring.
As Carroll stood by his clubhouse stall recently in camp, talking about his opportunity with the Twins, pitching coach Rick Anderson stopped by and shook his hand.
"I hope my pitchers throw you a lot of ground balls," Anderson said.
"I hope so, too," Carroll said. "I hope to take care of them for you, too."
And if the Twins get that, they will be happy with their newest shortstop.
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