Likely Starter: Alexi Casilla
2011 Stats: .260/.322/.368, 4 HR, 21 RBI, 52 R, 15/19 SB
Potential Backups: Luke Hughes, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Brian Dinkelman, Brian Dozier
We've been down this road before.
Alexi Casilla was the Opening Day starter at second base in 2009, and at shortstop last year. In neither instance did he hang on for long. With a career .185/.232/.219 hitting line in April, the Dominican infielder has made a habit of stumbling out of the gates, and there's no question that it's hurt him. When a player shows no signs of life early in the season, fans are quick to pass judgment and coaches begin looking at other options.
Most would agree that Casilla has the tools to be a starting middle infielder in the big leagues. He's got the athleticism, quickness and arm strength to hold his own defensively, and he's shown flashes of competence at the plate. Putting it all together for extended periods of time has been a challenge, but the Twins are giving him another chance this year. In all likelihood, it'll be his last chance.
After struggling through a putrid first month last year, Casilla hit .281/.344/.407 the rest of the way. The Twins are hoping he can approach that sort of production this time around, and with a modest a price tag of $1.4 million, he's worth the gamble. He can't be relied upon to stay in the lineup all year though, given that he's never even made it to the 100-game mark before, so depth at this position will be key.
Luke Hughes figures to fill in at second from time to time; he offers some offensive upside and will likely pinch-hit for Casilla in tight games. Tsuyoshi Nishioka would be a somewhat capable backup if he makes the roster. In the event of a significant injury to Casilla, the Twins might call up Brian Dozier and hand him the reigns.
All in all, there are a number of solid options to plug in at second. For that reason, and because they've been around the block with Casilla several times before, the leash might be shorter than ever. Another horrible April, combined with a quick start for Dozier in Rochester or some early flashes from Hughes, could put Casilla on the hot seat quickly.
With that being said, he may benefit from lowered expectations; as the No. 8 hitter, all the Twins need him to do is hit a little bit and make plays in the field. If he can stay focused and healthy, there's no reason to believe he can't do that. He'll have no shortage of motivation, as this is a pivotal year in the 27-year-old's career.
Predicted Hitting Line for Casilla: .270/.330/.350, 3 HR, 30 RBI