Gardenhire's Love Of Inept Utility Infielders Needs To End

Andrew KneelandSenior Writer IJune 29, 2009

NEW YORK - MAY 17:  Matt Tolbert #20 of the Minnesota Twins hits a RBI single in the seventh inning against the New York Yankees on May 17, 2009 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Everybody loves a hard worker. Just ask Twins' manager Ron Gardenhire. He is known around Twins' Territory as one who adores players who bust their tails, even though the results may not be there.

Perhaps this is the reason Matt Tolbert still finds himself in the batting lineup every day?

Being brutally honest, Tolbert is not a good baseball player. His defense is above-average at second base, but most of that is thanks to his incredible speed.

Tolbert's defensive range is one of the best on the team, but his less-than-desirable offensive numbers have many calling for his head.

Tolbert made the team out of Spring Training last year as a utility infielder. He was the minor-league version of Mark DeRosa, playing nearly everywhere in the infield as well as both corner outfield positions.

Sir Tolbert, versatility is thy middle name.

His defensive prowess aside, Tolbert's offensive struggles could be the only obstacle keeping him from the national spotlight.

And what an obstacle that is.

Just one game short of his 2008 total, Tolbert already has 18 more plate appearances. This is a result of his sliding—no pun intended—into the second base role on a daily basis. Alexi Casilla was just as good defensively, if not more so, than Tolbert.

However, when Casilla's triple-slash line fell to .167/.231/.202 in May the Twins felt the need to change things up.

I'm not saying that Casilla didn't have a demotion coming to him: he obviously did. Casilla didn't hustle on pop outs and fans were forced to watch him trot leisurely up the first-base line on bunt attempts. The hustle that Gardenhire loves wasn't evident in Casilla, and the result was a demotion.

The swapping of Tolbert and Casilla was welcomed with a sigh of relief among Twins fans. No longer would a bat worse than most National League pitchers' be forced into the lineup day-in and day-out. The fact that Casilla's defense was top-notch didn't make up for his offensive ineptitude in the eyes of fans.

In fact, offensive ineptitude is not foreign to Twins fans.

Most Twins fans claim that Nick Punto is only kept on the team because of his defensive versatility. To manager Ron Gardenhire, the fact that Punto is consistently battling with the Mendoza line is beside the point.

Now it seems the only thing keeping Tolbert in the big-leagues is the current injury to Punto. There is no room on the roster for two utility infielders. Just as Casilla was demoted, so shall Tolbert.

Gardenhire's supposed love affair with utility infielders who are horrendous at the plate is both well-known and well-documented in Minnesota. It seems everyone knows of this "weakness" and are quick to join in the criticizing.

This criticism has now been directed at Tolbert. He is going down the same dark road as Casilla and Punto did before him.

This time, though, Tolbert's days are numbered.

It seems shocking that Gardenhire continues to play these players who lack in the offensive department every day. Sure, most of the time they're excellent defenders. But when that is balanced against the fact that they only get a hit two times out of ten makes them bad baseball players.

There are guys like 25-year-old Steve Tolleson waiting in Triple-A for their chance at the Minnesota infield. Tolleson has a triple-slash line of .330/.398/.461 in his games at Rochester this year; extremely better than the 27-year-old Tolbert at that level.

Just two years of age separate Tolleson and Tolbert, yet Gardenhire preferred the elder. This is hard to criticise, but the fact that Tolleson is nearly as versatile as Tolbert raises the question, "Where's the love for offense?"

There is little doubt that Tolleson will play in Minnesota this year. How long that stint will be, no one knows. Whether in September when the rosters are expanded or not, the time is not yet known.

When Tolleson's name is called, though, let's hope he impresses Gardenhrie enough to break him of his love for offensive inept utility infielders.