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What can Alexi Casilla provide in 2012?

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In spring training last year, New York Mets manager Terry Collins said that second base has become “an enormous offensive position. Some of the guys that have been playing there have been putting up huge numbers at second. It’s become an offensive position, so to me that’s a big piece of the puzzle.”

In the American League, this has become exceedingly true. Players like Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler and Robinson Cano have packed a wallop for their respective teams. The Twins meanwhile have fielded a group of players last year at second who posted a 610 OPS, well below the league’s average of 721.

Clearly, the Twins are in need of some offensive contribution from the evolving position. Perhaps the team has recognized the way the trend is leaning as a reason why they moved prospect Eddie Rosario and his potent bat into the keystone position. But, while that may play out well in the long run, here in the present, the Twins need some stick.

Recently, Twins Daily’s Nick Nelson continued his Position Analysis series by tackling the team’s second base spot, naming Alexi Casilla as the likely starter. In short, Nelson pointing out that Casilla has both the talent but at the same time the lack of consistency to hold down the job. Wrote Nelson:

“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.”
On both accounts, Nelson is spot on.

Casilla’s track record in the minor leagues is fairly impressive. In a little under 2,000 plate appearances, the switch-hitting middle infielder posted a very good .296/.370/.371 batting line. While in the farm system, he demonstrated a strong strike zone recognition (walking in nine percent of his plate appearances) and an equally outstanding contact rate (striking out just 11 percent of his plate appearances). He lacked the power to be fawned over by prospect farmers but he contributed with his speed when possible, swiping 164 bags at a 75% success clip.

On the other hand, when at the major league level, Casilla has shown just flashes of that talent – if only in small and disappointing doses. Early on, his position was secured in Ron Gardenhire’s doghouse as Casilla failed to show the stability in the field that has become so instilled as “the Twins way.” Handed the second base job in 2009, he went out and promptly hit .202/.280/.259 and pushed the team into starting Matt Tolbert and Nick Punto over him.

Still, for all his faults, the Twins have hung on to him only to witness small bursts of his promising talent. For instance, in 2010, limited to just 69 games, he hit .276/.331/.395 and avoided the chopping block for one more season. When he was off to a horrendous start in 2011, hitting .167/.227/.200 through the first twenty games, it was widely believed that he had probably earned his way out of the organization and needed a change of scenery. Instead, Casilla made some mechanical adjustments and rebounded to the tune of .281/.344/.408 over his next 74 games before a hamstring injury knocked him out for the year.

Considering the rollercoaster that has Casilla’s career, it’s hard to peg him down for 2012. While the rest of the Twins Daily community isn’t sold on his skill I (for some reason) remain optimistic that we are going to see a much improved Casilla this coming year.

While never being one to rely on off-season league and spring training stats for any indication of future performance, Casilla has been impressive in both nevertheless. In his Dominican League stint, he produced a .336 batting average – which was the second-highest in the league – in addition to a .419 on-base percentage. Yes, the counterargument to this is that the island league is littered with wash-out major leaguers and clinging-to-life minor leaguers but it is reassuring that Casilla has managed to carry the adjustments he made in 2011 into the off-season. Likewise, Casilla’s current .438 spring average in the Grapefruit League in 17 plate appearances is a continuation of his winter league performance. And, yes, much like the winter league stats, the numbers posted in Florida mean little – but it is leaps and bounds better than his two prior spring performances in which in hit .200 (10-for-50) in 2011 and .135 (7-for-53) in 2010.

Admittedly, in terms of optimism, that’s not a strong foundation to build a projection on. I’d rather be able to compare a high line drive rate and a suppressed batting average on balls in play from the previous season, similar to Danny Valencia’s 2011, in an effort to push positivity – something more concrete and substantial than basing it on that he has done well when it has not mattered. However, if we are looking for a sign or indication that Casilla is ready to marry his potential to his actual performance, this is a step in the right direction.
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