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The Casilla Boogeyman

Posted by: John Bonnes Updated: December 12, 2010 - 11:44 PM
A couple of months ago it was all so clear. Alexi Casilla would be a starting middle infielder for the Minnesota Twins in 2011. It had been predestined since August, when it became clear that Orlando Hudson was likely to walk away from the Twins as a free agent.
 
Casilla, after recovering from an elbow injury, had a decent year in 2010, hitting .276, getting on base 33 % of the time and even showing a little more power than we’ve see before. He’s also only 26 years old, and best of all is fairly cheap as this is his first year of arbitration. He looked like a decent replacement -- decent enough that all four of the TwinsCentric guys blueprints chose him to be starting at second base on Opening Day. 
 
But since the trade of JJ Hardy, that all seems to have changed. Casilla has become the default target, a boogeyman that Twins fans should fear. He’s inconsistent. His defense at shortstop is suspect. He’s a question mark. He doesn’t get on base enough or have enough power.
 
What I can’t figure out is: where were these concerns a month ago? After all, he was slated for 500 at-bats at that time. He was going to be playing a middle infield position. He was the same guy that we were ready to hand a job to.
 
So, pop quiz, hot shot: Why are we suddenly so concerned about handing him a job now? Let’s make it a multiple choice question…
 
A)    His offense isn’t good enough.
Casilla’s career numbers are under whelming.
 
(MS-Word is telling me that under whelming is two words. Really? Is overwhelming? No, that works fine as one word. Which raises the question: what is just plain whelming?
 
whelm: tr. v. 1.To cover with water; submerge. 2. To overwhelm.)
 
Ok, so Casilla’s offensive career numbers don’t exactly whelm anyone. In his major league career, he’s hit just .249 and got on base at a .306 clip, which are the two things we’re going to care the most about from our middle infielder offensively. What’s more, he’s had some time to show us what he’s capable of, with 958 AB.
 
The good news? He was better than that last year. He has been quite a bit better than that in his minor league career, hitting .297 with and OBP of .370. And he seems to have a pretty solid idea what the strike zone is, as he walked 13 times last year compared to 17 strikeouts. That ratio is pretty consistent to what he showed in the minors.
 
He’s also fast, which is the oft-cited reason for having him on the roster. In what is essentially a little less than two season’s worth of at-bats, he has 35 stolen bases. Even better, he only has been caught just four times, a phenomenal percentage.
 
But the really big question is – if we were ready to hand him the job at second base, is it his offense that we’re really worried about now that he might be playing shortstop? After all, second base is a far more demanding position offensively than shortstop. If he could hold his own there, why not across the infield? In fact, wouldn’t that be a way to maximize his value to the organization?
 
B)    His defense isn’t good enough.
 
When Casilla basically lost his job at second base in 2009, one of the reasons was his defensive mistakes. He wasn’t very consistent, and he seemed to make more than his share of mental mistakes. Ultimate Zone Rating confirmed his struggles with a ranking of 7.2 runs worse than average that year.
 
Of course, statisticians would be quick to point out that is a fairly small sample size. The year before, when he played a lot more innings, he was essentially average. Last year, with far fewer innings, he was also essentially average. In his career, over about 1.5 years of fielding at 2B, UZR estimates he has cost the team about 12 runs.
 
I think that makes people very concerned about him moving to shortstop, because shortstop is a more demanding defensive position. It is not, however, just a tougher version of the same position. It isn’t unusual for players to be better at shortstop than at second base. For instance, Nick Punto played roughly the same amount at 2B and SS while with the Twins. According to UZR, he was about 13 runs per season better at SS.
 
Twins fans might have been seeing a little of this in Casilla. Last year he played more innings at shortstop than at second base. To my eye, he was competent there, mixing in some Alexi-gaffes with the occasional really nice play. Ultimate Zone Rating agrees, by the way. It says he saved four runs over an average shortstop last year in very limited time. Anyone familiar with UZR would warn that this is a very small sample size, and UZR needs a much larger sample to give much of an evaluation. But there certainly isn’t any evidence there that he can’t handle the job.
 
Of course, if it doesn’t work out, it’s not like the Twins hands are tied. You might recall that the other guy likely to start in the middle infield, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, has a little experience at shortstop. He was switched over there by a former major league manager, Bobby Valentine. He won two gold gloves there, so I think you would grant me that it’s possible he could work out there.
 
C)    Now we have two question marks in the middle infield.
 
Sure we do – but who is the bigger question mark exactly? The Twins are about as familiar as they can be seeing as they traded for him while he was still in A-ball. And while I’m sure they’ve done their due diligence in scouting Nishioka, he’s the one that has been playing overseas, against a level of competition that the Twins aren’t completely familiar with.
 
Casilla isn’t going to need to adjust to a completely different culture and a slightly different game. Casilla isn’t going to be the one struggling to communicate with his teammates and coaches. For that matter, Casilla is officially on the team. Casilla is the (by far) more affordable player. So why are we sure Casilla is the guy that will struggle? Or that he might be the odd man out when a rumor about trading for Brendan Ryan makes the rounds?
 
D)    We had something taken away from us.
 
This is, I think, the correct answer. Since we received word that the Twins had won exclusive negotiating rights to Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Twins fans mistakenly assumed that Casilla was back in a utility role. The Twins had a flashy new toy from Japan to play with so Casilla would be at the same position he played last year of utility infielder.
 
Of course, we know now that was never really the case. Nishioka was always a replacement option for Hardy, no matter whether he swapped positions or not. The Twins decided Hardy wasn’t worth what he would make in arbitration (which is likely closer to $7M than $6M), whether that was because of his injuries, speed, or whatever. When it became apparent that he WAS worth that money to other teams, they were able to offer him arbitration and trade him.
 
But it doesn’t FEEL like that to us. In our minds, Casilla just got a promotion and we focus on the things he doesn’t have that Hardy did. Casilla doesn’t have Hardy’s offensive upside. He doesn’t have Hardy’s consistent defense. He is more of a question mark than Hardy. We concentrate on these things because they were just taken away from us, not because Casilla is being asked to do anything more than we expected from him a month ago. We might justify it with analysis, but I think the motivation is more primal the analytical: we just want our toy back.
 
Or maybe a primal urge was what drove us to give Alexi a starting job in the first place two months ago – I don’t know. I also don’t know that Casilla is going to thrive as a starting shortstop or second baseman in the major leagues. But I think it’s time to find out. His patience, his speed, his age and his price are an encouraging combination. So quit trying to convince me that he is the boogeyman. 
 

 
Diamond Awards
OK, so I have that big ticket item to give your favorite Twins fan this holiday season – even if that person is yourself. It’s a unique opportunity, something they’ll probably remember forever, and it all benefits a good cause.
 
On Thursday, January 27th, the night before TwinsFest, the 2011 Diamond Awards takes place. This is the banquet that the Twins organization throws where they hand out team awards like Most Valuable Player, etc. It’s hosted by Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven, features a lineup of Twins greats, and is even televised. Think of it as the Emmys, except in Minnesota and about baseball. Doesn’t that sound like a great baseball date?
 
And while TwinsFest will be at the Metrodome, the Diamond Awards will be at Target Field. (Don’t ask me where. I don’t have any idea how they’ll be doing that, but I have to imagine it’s a great chance to go behind the scenes there a little.)
 
The cost is $150/ticket (and you can purchase them here), but $100 of it is tax-deductible because it benefits the University of Minnesota Medical Foundation, supporting research in ataxia, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and ALS. And you can buy them now, before the tax year ends. 
 
So let’s count the ways this rocks: you get to dress up for an unbelievable date night (1) that includes hanging out with Twins greats (2) at Target Field (3) during the most baseball-starved part of the season (4). Plus, it supports worthy research (5) and can be written off before this tax year ends (6).
 
Oh, and I’ll be there, too. (Which probably lowers it back that down to 5.5). So bring it up at dinner tonight and I’ll see you there.
 
For more info, check out their website.  
 

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