A year ago, guarded optimism would be an apt description of the feelings of Twins fans towards the middle infield heading into Spring Training. A recently signed Japanese batting champion, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, was going to fill a hole at short stop the Twins have had for the better part of a decade, and Alexi Casilla was finally going to be the every day second basemen the Twins had hoped he would turn into since they acquired him for J.C. Romero in 2005. Instead, Nishioka broke his leg just weeks into the season, and never really adjusted to the American style of baseball played on this side of the Pacific Ocean. Casilla, meanwhile continued to play inconsistent defense and was unable to generate any momentum at the plate, posting an OPS of just .691. A nagging hamstring cost him most of the 2nd half of the season and Casilla only played in 97 games, despite opening the season as the starting 2B. Defensively, Casilla split time between 2B and SS due to other team injuries, and tallied 11 errors in 275 attempts, and was worth just 0.4 dWAR for the season, only slightly above average. I should note, however, that the 0.4 dWAR was the first time Casilla had posted positive Defensive Wins Above Replacement since becoming a Major League regular.
Heading into Spring Training in 2012, Casilla is once again being called upon to be the starting second basemen, along side newly acquired short stop Jamey Carroll. Admittedly, I think the Twins have Casilla and Carroll playing the wrong middle infield positions, but with all of Spring Training ahead of them, the Twins have plenty of time to evaluate their middle infield. For Casilla to succeed in 2012 he’s going to have to stay healthy (he’s never played more than 98 games in a season), and remain focused defensively. If Casilla is among the top half of AL second basemen, defensively, at season’s end, the Twins will be able to succeed despite his mediocre offensive statistics. Bill James projects Casilla to play a career high 109 games in 2012. To have an opportunity to be successful, the Twins need Casilla to play more games than that, but with Nishioka and Luke Hughes scrapping for playing time as utility infielders, Gardenhire will keep Casilla on a short leash if falters. James also projects a slash of .264/.331/.347, which means he thinks Casilla will hit mostly singles and reach base thanks to a walk rate above his career average. Casilla’s career BABIP is under .300, which means that he isn’t making strong contact when he hits the ball, leading to more weak grounders and easy outs for defenders. If Joe Vavra, Twins Hitting Coach, can help Casilla hit the ball with more authority, his speed should help him push that number closer to .310. Casilla has never stolen more than the 15 bases he swiped a year ago, but if he is on base more frequently, and playing 100+ games, he has an opportunity to steal 20+ bases. This is probably Casilla’s last chance to earn a starting spot for the Twins, and I think he will turn in an average 2012, but remain healthy and play a majority of the Twins’ games at 2B, while filling in occasionally at SS for the aging Jamey Carroll. I project Casilla to play 120 games overall, to hit in line with his career averages, with a slightly higher OBP, and little to no increased power. Playing league average defense, and not expecting Casilla to suddenly become a great base runner, he could potentially be worth 1.1 WAR, which is good enough for $5.5 million dollars (according to the Simple WAR Calculator)
If the Twins are going to contend in 2012, having consistent play from their middle infielders, especially Alexi Casilla, will be key with the stable of “pitch to contact” guys the Twins run out to the pitcher’s mound.