In Spring Training, there is a battle for almost every position, whether we realize it or not. For the Twins, the middle infield may be one of the most interesting position battles on the diamond. It’s also one of the most convoluted – the Twin battles at second base and shortstop are so interconnected that they must be viewed as one.
Who is in Fort Myers?
Jamey Carroll, Alexi Casilla, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, and Luke Hughes are the middle infielders. Brian Dozier headlines a class of non-roster invitees that also includes Pedro Florimon, Mike Hollimon, and Brian Dinkelman.
Is there a battle?
Yes, there is. Carroll and Casilla began Spring Training as the likely favorites, but both players come with some serious question marks. Carroll is a competent fielder and a great on-base presence in the lineup, but at 38 years old it remains to be seen whether he can play shortstop full-time. Casilla is much younger and has shown flashes of brilliance during his career, but he has yet to put together a consistent season at the plate or in the field. To top it off, Casilla has suffered numerous injuries, including hamstring troubles that dogged him last year. The backup middle infield job is up for grabs as well.
Whether the middle infield battle ends up being for shortstop or second base, starter or backup, Nishioka will be one of the fiercest competitors. The former Japanese batting champion disappointed last season, but he knows his career is on the line and is eager to prove himself this spring. Despite being in the second year of a $9.25 million contract, nothing is guaranteed for Nishioka. Officially, at least, he has a chance to win back a starting job, but he could just as easily end up as a bench player – or at AAA. In order to increase his value as a role player, Nishioka is going to try playing some third base this Spring.
Hughes is at a disadvantage because he does not play shortstop. On the other hand, he is out of options, which forces the Twins to keep him on the MLB roster if they don’t want to lost him. And he can hit in the spring; last season he led the team with six Spring Training home runs. The Twins only carry four bench players, and one of those slots will be used for the third catcher (likely Drew Butera), so they do not have a lot of flexibility to carry multiple backup infielders. Keeping Hughes might force Nishioka down to Rochester.
Finally, Dozier seems to be the wave of the future. He came out of nowhere to .320/.399/.491 between Fort Myers and New Britain in 2011. All signs indicate that Dozier needs some time at AAA to prepare himself for the Big Leauges. That said, if the Twins get the impression that he is ready for the Majors, they should be willing to demote Casilla or Nishioka to keep him. Dozier has more long-term potential than any middle infielder on the Twins’ roster.
How does this battle compare?
The shortstop and second base battles will be fought side by side, just like the historical battles of Lexington and Concord. I realize it's ironic to compare the first battles of the American Revolution to a sports competition involving a Dominican player (Casilla), a Japanese player (Nishioka), and an Australian player (Hughes), but the twin nature of the battles is the clincher. Also, you could argue that Hughes and Dozier are the new wave of Twins players challenging the entrenched starters just as the fledgling American militiamen challenged the long-standing British army for supremacy.
Who will win?
Both sides notched victories at Lexington and Concord, and the results of the Twins' middle infield battle will probably likewise be mixed. Carroll is probably safe, as long as he can hold up to the rigors of shortstop at age 38. But it remains to be seen whether Casilla can win a complete victory at second base or whether Nishioka has made any significant improvements from last season. The most likely scenario is that Casilla wins the second base job with Hughes as the primary backup.
Finally, Lexington and Concord were just a hint of the real battle to come. When those battles were fought, the American colonists were not yet ready to declare independence and fight a true revolution. Look for Dozier to emerge later this season or early in 2013. He and 2011 draft pick Levi Michael might one day cause the middle infield revolution the Twins desperately need.