Pedro Florimon and Brian Dozier get their shot at the Twins' long-unsolved middle infield dilemma.
FORT MYERS, FLA. — The ideal major league shortstop is a guy who swallows up everything that comes within 30 feet of him. But for the Twins, it seems to be the other way around. It's the shortstops themselves who keep getting swallowed up.
"Every team seems to have a black hole, a position that's just really tough to fill," said Rob Antony, Twins assistant general manager. "And for us recently, it's been shortstop. You find guys who can field the ball, but they don't hit much. Other guys you think will hit, but they don't make enough of the plays."
And, Antony admits, some of the most costly errors in recent years can be charged to the front office. J.J. Hardy? "Yeah, I wish we still had him." Tsuyoshi Nishioka? "No doubt, we failed." Alexi Casilla? "So frustrating."
Perhaps fitting for a franchise called Twins, the shortstop problem is virtually identical to the one just to the other side of second base. Come April, Minnesota will start a different player at shortstop for the eighth consecutive season; whoever takes the field across the way will be the sixth different Opening Day second baseman in seven years.
"It's baseball. There [are] things you can control, and things you can't," shrugged manager Ron Gardenhire, a middle infielder himself during the early 1980s. "Hopefully we won't have to [search] after this year. Maybe someone will take off. ... We may have one right here in camp."
Maybe so, though rarely have the Twins' front-runners for the positions possessed so little experience. Pedro Florimon, a 26-year-old Dominican whom the Twins plucked off waivers from Baltimore two winters ago, has spent two months in the major leagues and appears to be Gardenhire's pre-camp preference at shortstop. And Brian Dozier, who like third baseman Trevor Plouffe came up as a shortstop but was found wanting, is the No. 1 candidate at second base, hoping to prove he can build upon last year's 14-week Target Field tryout.
Behind both are a handful of glove men such as Eduardo Escobar, acquired from the White Sox in the Francisco Liriano trade; 22-year-old prospect Danny Santana, who has yet to play above Class A; and super-utilityman Jamey Carroll, a 39-year-old Swiss Army Knife of an infielder, with the tools for any position.
"I want something that is going to work out there, a combo that works," Gardenhire said of the annual up-the-middle shuffle. This year, "I'm going to try to figure that out in the spring. That's hard to do. Normally, you want a little more time."
Time hasn't helped much with the Twins' haunted positions, though. Since 2006, the Twins have used 16 shortstops, including several touted as long-term answers: Jason Bartlett, Adam Everett, Brendan Harris, along with Plouffe, Hardy and Nishioka. Only once in that span did a shortstop play more than 100 games in a single season -- Bartlett's 138-game stint in 2007. Meanwhile, 19 second basemen have played the position for the Twins in that time.
"That's just the way it's been for us," Gardenhire said. "Not every team can have that locked-in superstar."
No, there aren't many Derek Jeters or Cal Ripkens available. Heck, just across Fort Myers, the Red Sox are preparing to start the 2013 season with Stephen Drew at short -- the 25th player to handle the job since former batting champ Nomar Garciaparra was traded at midseason in 2004.
That doesn't salve the nagging feeling that the Twins' revolving door up the middle has cost them games over the years, though. "Defensively, it definitely hurts. Without consistency, you never develop good communication," Antony said. "When you have guys who play together year after year, they understand what the other guy is going to do. It's like hockey linemates -- you can just see the chemistry."
The Twins thought they had a longterm answer at short six years ago, but made the difficult decision to trade Bartlett in order to acquire Delmon Young. They signed Everett to replace him, but he didn't hit enough. Before the 2010 season, "we thought we had our [longterm] guy in J.J. Hardy," Antony said, but nagging injuries kept him out of the lineup and the Twins, after concluding he was too costly for the amount of risk he represented, traded him away.
They signed Nishioka, "admittedly a roll of the dice," Antony said, "but on a guy who had just won a gold glove in Japan, a guy who could run and get on base. It seemed like a great fit, but he got derailed right away and it never worked."
Much of the Twins' constant shuffle for five years can be pinned to the annual tease by Casilla, who exhibited every skill they craved -- until he was handed a full-time job. "You could see he had so much ability -- switch-hitter, fast, a tremendous base-stealer. He had range and a great arm," Antony said. "Gardy thought he'd be a great shortstop, but it didn't work. We put him at second, and the consistency was never there. Every year, we thought with age and experience and maturity, he would put it together."
But Casilla, finally allowed to walk away as a free agent last winter -- he's in Baltimore now, where Hardy has thrived since departing Minnesota -- was prone to mental lapses and batting slumps.
So will Florimon-to-Dozier fare any better? Will Carroll, who turned 39 last week, need to relieve one of the youngsters once again? Far from frustrated over having to pan for gold every year, Gardenhire sounds optimistic about his candidates.
"I like Florimon an awful lot," Gardenhire said. "He's gotten stronger. He's lifted pretty good. He looks bigger, [and] he's moving around nicely."
The manager had a heart-to-heart, he said, with Dozier on the team's winter caravan bus, telling the shortstop-turned-second baseman, "it's not about where you play, it's about if you are in the top nine."
Last year, Dozier was called up from Rochester in May and given an extended tryout. But after making only four errors in 60 games at shortstop in Class AA New Britain a year earlier, the 25-year-old committed 15 in 83 games in the majors. Worse, his hitting slumped as his fielding did.
"My approach was completely off," Dozier said. "I went through a stretch when I started hitting some home runs, starting driving some balls to gaps, and that had an effect. I said, 'Hey, let's try to crank it a little more,' and I started pulling off the ball. I got away from what was working."
Meanwhile, Florimon was earning a spot on the International League All-Star team with his often-spectacular glove work, so the Twins had them switch places in August. "I was a little bit shocked," Dozier said. "Obviously my numbers [a .234 batting average, a .271 on-base percentage] weren't where they should be, but I felt like I was getting out of my slump." To compound the hurt, he wasn't invited back as a September callup.
Florimon didn't hit any better than Dozier, but the Twins believe his range and arm strength can compensate for it, so Dozier went to winter ball to brush up on his second base skills. Gardenhire and Antony both emphasized that Dozier isn't out of the picture at short, but they believe he might be a more natural second baseman.
Florimon, meanwhile, hopes to seize the opportunity, starting with getting on base.
"I have to bunt, move the runner, other stuff. Hitting is a little bit hard, but every day, I have to work on that," Florimon said. "This year for me is, it's going to be better than last year. I want to be here for a long time. I don't want to play more minor leagues."
A long time? The Twins would love that, too, for a change.
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