Fixing the Twins Middle Infield: Internal Options

Jeremiah Graves@cheapseatchronAnalyst IJuly 12, 2009

CHICAGO - JULY 06:  Nick Punto #8 of the Minnesota Twins hits during the MLB game against the Chicago White Sox on July 6, 2007 at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Twins defeated the White Sox 20-14. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

As baseball rolls through the final weekend before the All-Star break, it is easy to see that some changes are necessary if the Twins are serious about winning the division.

Heading into play on Saturday the Twins’ record is a pedestrian 44-43, one game over .500 and four back of the Tigers in the tough American League Central.

One of the biggest weaknesses for the Twins thus far has been the offensive production (or lack thereof) from the men manning the middle infield. The four men who have seen the most time at second base and shortstop are Brendan Harris, Nick Punto, Matt Tolbert and Alexi Casilla (currently in Triple A).

The four have combined to “hit” a cumulative average of .209 with five home runs, 56 runs batted in and 15 stolen bases. Harris has been, by far, the most productive of the quartet with a .269 average, four home runs and 23 RBI.

Unfortunately, Harris also leads the pack—and the entire team—in errors with six, which is one more than both Punto and Casilla. Tolbert adds two errors of his own, which leads to the middle infield accounting for 18 of the team’s 34 total errors on the season.

The only other regular with more than two errors is Michael Cuddyer who has four, three of which were committed playing out of position at first base. As such, it is pretty evident that the current middle infield options are hurting the team on both sides of the ball and a change needs to be made.

Internal options do exist, but may not be enough to get the job done.

Down on the farm, the Twins have four potential options, three in Triple A Rochester—one of whom is a member of the aforementioned quartet of underperformers—and one in Double A New Britain.

In Rochester, the Twins Opening Day second baseman Alexi Casilla is raking to the tune of .338/.374/.430 with nine stolen bases. It should be noted that he has collected a very uninspiring eight extra base hits, meaning he is surviving on a slap-and-dash approach which is not what the Twins need to add to the mix right now.

He has, however, proven that he can hit at the major league level. Last season he put up a line of .281/.333/.374 and notched 108 hits in only 98 games. Casilla, 24, hurt his chances of making it back to the Twins lineup when his lethargic early-season play landed him deep in manager Ron Gardenhire’s doghouse. It is quite possible that Casilla is now nothing more than trade-bait.

The Red Wings shortstop, Trevor Plouffe has never given the Twins any reason to think they were wise taking him in the first-round of the 2004 draft, but may be at the now-or-never stage. The 23-year old is hitting a lackluster .247/.301/.368 on the season and playing equally shaky defense with a fielding percentage of .963, which is somehow better than his career average of .945.

On paper, Plouffe brings nothing to the table, but many players with underwhelming minor league dossiers have stepped up their play when they make it to the highest level. Whether or not Plouffe is capable of making such a leap is questionable.

Prior to Casilla’s demotion earlier this season 25-year old Steve Tolleson was getting most of the starts at second base for the Red Wings and put up some solid numbers in the process. In 40 games Tolleson is hitting .303/.386/.439. His playing time has taken a serious hit and he’s seen limited action at second base, shortstop, third base and in the outfield.

Although his raw numbers look solid, the sample size is still very small. He has amassed only 155 at bats on the season and wouldn’t figure to be a significant upgrade over any of the current members of the Twins middle infield cluster.

In Double A, starting second baseman Brian Dinkelman continues to do what he’s done throughout his entire minor league career – hit. Dinkelman, 25, is sporting a nifty .297/.384/.427 line through 81 games.

Additionally, he has shown signs of a player growing into his power. Dinkelman’s doubles have increased in each season since he entered the Twins system in 2006. His rapidly increasing yearly totals of 11, 23, 32 are impressive and he has 22 thus far in 2009 putting him on pace for a career high. As he continues to get stronger expect more of those doubles to turn into home runs.

He also shows better plate presence than the middle infield foursome. The cumulative K/BB ratio of the Twins’ middle infield regulars is 2.09. Dinkleman’s career K/BB ratio is a 1.28. The current league average is 1.92. Needless to say, Dinkleman’s approach at the plate would be a dramatic improvement.  

A jump to the big club might be more than Dinkelman could handle, but he could also provide the spark that the middle infield has been missing this season as well as another steady bat to a lineup with many free-swingers.

The Twins aren’t known for making big moves midseason, so it is very possible that one of these men will be called upon to help the club in the second half. There is a possibility, however, that the Twins will shake things up and look outside the organization to improve. The club is moving into a new stadium next season and the payroll still has some flexibility from departures of Torii Hunter and Johan Santana prior to the 2008 campaign.

If general manager Bill Smith decides to go out and obtain help from elsewhere it is entirely possible that one of the four men mentioned above could still help the club by serving as a key component in a trade.

Either way, expect reinforcements for the Twins middle infield in the second half.

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