So, 2012 is basically playing out like 2011 did for the Minnesota Twins. None of the moving parts are syncing up, leaving an otherwise potent offense to play catch-up on a regular basis when erstwhile hurlers like P.J. Walters and Brian Duensing give up early runs.
As a result, September is basically an open audition for many of the Twins. Sure, guys like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Josh Willingham would seem locked in to next season's club, but it wouldn't stun this writer if one of the latter pair found himself on the outside looking in should the club decide to retool.
Nonetheless, shortstop has been a revolving door for the club since as long as just about anyone can remember. Greg Gagne was pretty much the last stalwart shortstop—his value tied very strongly to his defense—and that was roughly 20 years ago. Twins fans have since been subjected to the Mearses, Reboulets, Guzmans, Castros and Everetts of the world, with only J.J. Hardy as a single season reprieve from the mediocrity (though Cristian Guzman was pretty good for a bit).
There's a good chance 2013 will be more of the same, with no real incumbent staking a claim—three Twins have started a game at short, but none will have played more than half the games at season's end—and no real strong prospect coming up through the ranks.
So today, let's take a look and see if we can't handicap the race to be next season's shortstop.
Carroll is the elder statesman of the group. Carroll, who'll enter next season at 39-years-old, has been a steady defender across the infield, and his bat has picked up of late. He was never really signed for the stick anyway, but rather to draw a few walks, put the ball in play and be more than a black hole in the two, eight, or nine hole in the order. At .258/.340/.307, with a 59/49 K/BB rate, he's done exactly that. Due $3.75 million in 2013, Carroll could just as easily be the top utility infielder, or maybe even start at second base in addition to possibly winning the shortstop battle. The Twins probably want Carroll in a utility role, however, given his age and the team's desire to move forward with younger players in this time of turmoil. Odds of opening day assignment: 35 percent.
At times Dozier looked like he belonged in the big leagues, lofting home runs into the left-field bleachers at Target Field and making his share of outstanding defensive plays. But on the whole, Dozier's performance was uneven; his OPS was 603, his whiff-to-walk ratio was over three and he muffed 15 plays despite only starting 81 games while exhibiting less than ideal range. Dozier is probably the most naturally talented of the in-house options, and he's no doubt a Gardenhire favorite, but he may be best suited long-term at second base, and that's provided of course that his bat comes to play next year. The Gardenhire affinity may be overstated, as he's not going to be promoted as a September call-up—likely due to poor play at Rochester after his demotion—and he's likely going to be asked to play winter ball. He'll be an interesting case to monitor. Odds: 25 percent.
The Twins strangely plucked Florimon from the Orioles about a year ago, and added him to the 40-man roster despite bad numbers across the board offensively and defensively. The scouting report on Florimon, which appears to have proven true this season in the majors and minors, is that he's a flashy, if somewhat erratic, defender whose glove will have to carry his bat. Don't let his early success fool you; he's nowhere near even the .254/.333/.356 hitter he is at this second, as evidenced by his .675 career minor league OPS. He's an ideal utility guy: fast, adept at fielding, quick and capable of taking a walk. But by no means should he be a starting shortstop, and that may be the predicament the Twins find themselves in on Opening Day 2013. Odds: 20 percent.
Escobar, who was acquired as part of the Francisco Liriano trade from the White Sox, is a somewhat similar player to Florimon. He's a little more adept on the bases and has more position versatility, but is an even worse hitter and has a less discerning eye. For anyone outside the organization, it would be almost impossible to distinguish which player is more likely to draw a look at shortstop first, so I'll give them the exact same odds. Odds: 20 percent.
Plouffe has made some strides at third, and I don't think the Twins would want to revisit this nightmarish scenario, but never say never. Plouffe's bat would play at short, and would allow the Twins to pursue someone from the outside to play third base. It's an almost no-chance scenario, however. Odds: Five percent.
One has to believe the ship has sailed on Casilla. The club doesn't like him at short, and after this season, it's hard to wonder if the club still likes him much at all. He'll go through periods where he'll do almost nothing with the bat, simply blending into his surroundings as a black hole at the bottom of the lineup before randomly erupting for a 3-for-4 game with two steals or somehow willing his small frame to pop one out of the Targe Mahal. This year has been an utter collapse offensively for the diminutive Dominican, however, as he's hit .218/.259/.292 and may be playing his way out of any sort of future in Minneapolis. He's arbitration eligible for the last time this winter, but it's hard to believe the Twins would want to even repeat the $1.4 million he's been paid this year. Odds: One percent.
Other Organizational Options
There aren't many, as top draft pick Levi Michael has scuffled in High-A in his first season of pro ball. He's improved as the season has gone on, but it's hard to imagine him in Twinstripes at any point in 2013, barring a big turnaround. The only other options in the organization include minor league journeymen like Ray Chang or castoffs like Tsuyoshi Nishioka. There's virtually no chance someone from up above gets bumped for someone from this category next season.
The free-agent market isn't exactly ripe. Stephen Drew has an option to be exercised, and Marco Scutaro will be a free agent. Beyond that, it's the vast wasteland of Cesar Izturis, Jason Bartlett and Yuniesky Betancourt. One could look to the trade market, especially when a familiar name might turn up. J.J. Hardy, whom the Twins infamously traded for a pair of relievers who are no longer toiling for the Twins, might be pushed out by upstart phenom Manny Machado next season at short. It would seem unlikely that the O's would want one of the two playing out of position for the long term, and Hardy is pushing 30 with a big contract, though not an immovable one, at least in my opinion. That trade isn't happening for the Twins—that ship already sailed—but other than Hardy, it's hard to believe much will be available on the trade market with shortstop already being such a shallow position.
Likely Winner: Carroll.
Carroll is under contract, durable, dependable, and a good leader. The Twins value these things probably more than any other club, and as a result, Carroll should draw the opening day assignment at short. The club secretly has to be hoping, however, that he's just a placeholder until Michael or Dozier steps up and steals the job from him. The shortstop cupboard is otherwise bare in the Twins organization.