After signing Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka to a 3-year, $9 million contract, it became clear that some adjustments would need to be made within the Minnesota Twins organization. Manager Ron Gardenhire started carrying around a book titled Survival Japanese. Players started working on picking up various words and phrases to help them communicate with their new teammate. Perhaps most importantly, someone would need to become a leader while introducing Nishioka to the American lifestyle and brand of baseball. To aid these efforts, Gardenhire chose Nishioka’s partner on the opposite side of second base, Alexi Casilla.
A couple weeks ago, Kelsie Smith of the Pioneer Press did a report on Casilla and his new job as teacher for Nishioka. One thing that I took away from the article was the level of maturity Casilla demonstrated in his quotes. In the past, he was seen as a player that would suffer from mental lapses on the field and thus lacked maturity, but it really felt that there was evidence to the contrary here.
These mental lapses have accompanied a lack of consistency. He was fairly solid in 2008 and 2010 (when he was healthy) but struggled in ’07 and ’09. It’s almost as if he’s becoming the new Nick Punto. However, one thing that has remained above-average has been his ability to steal a base. Casilla has an 89.7% success rate (35 for 39) for his career, and that fits in perfectly with Ron Gardenhire’s desire to add more speed and stolen bases to the team’s offense.
This is the second time Casilla has been handed a starting job, and again he’ll have guys knocking on the door step if he falters. Luke Hughes has become a favorite with his solid spring so far, and Trevor Plouffe could also be a possibility. Plus, we have to assume that Gardenhire would love to throw Matt Tolbert into the mix. But as long as Casilla and Nishioka start together (all 6 of Nishioka’s starts thus far this spring have been accompanied by Casilla), we have to assume that Casilla’s job is safe.
Being a shortstop and batting at the bottom of the order means that Casilla won’t need necessarily good numbers to be considered a positive to the team. If he could hold a .265/.340/.350 batting line with 15+ steals and slightly above-average defense at worst while playing about 140 games, I think that would have to be considered a successful year.
Alexi Casilla is not necessarily the X-factor that will decide the Twins’ fate this season, but his success could determine whether the Twins found a cheap alternative to fill a hole on the roster, or if they seemingly meet their yearly quota for picking a poor choice to put their faith in once again. If he’s ready to be a leader for the infield and Tsuyoshi Nishioka, and can cut down on his mistakes in the field, I think he has a good chance of being a solid replacement to J.J. Hardy.