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Battle of Utility

Alexi Casilla and Matt Tolbert both showed a great deal of promise for the Twins in 2008 and then regressed in 2009. The infielders are now competing for a spot as a reserve on the opening-day roster.

Big offseason acquisitions of shortstop J.J. Hardy and second baseman Orlando Hudson have given the Twins infield a new look. Hardy and Hudson will be joined in the infield by first baseman Justin Morneau and a Brendan Harris/Nick Punto platoon. The Twins will probably keep only two backup infielders, and one will be Punto or Harris. Casilla and Tolbert are the most likely options for the other spot. Danny Valencia is an exciting young third baseman for the Twins who has been a very good hitter and adequate fielder in the minors. He is expected to see some action in the majors this season, but I don't see him as a serious candidate yet for the opening-day roster.

Tolbert made the team in 2008 and had a solid season as a utility infielder, hitting .283 in 113 at-bats (.322 OBP). In 42 games, he made a positive impression as a decent hitter and versatile infielder. In 2009, however, Tolbert regressed at the plate, as he hit only .232 (.303 OBP) in 198 at-bats. Defensively, Tolbert has showed adequate range and arm strength in his action at shortstop, second base and third base.

Tolbert's chief asset is his work ethic. He is the type of player most coaches love because he is meticulous in his preparation and constantly hustles. Tolbert, much like Nick Punto is a "Gardy-type" player because he seems to get the most of his ability. Another plus for Tolbert also seems to be a fairly smart player who is does not make a lot of mental errors.

Casilla's best season also came in 2008, but his impact was much grater than Tolbert's. Casilla essentially became the Twins every day second baseman late in 2007 after the Twins traded Luis Castillo to the Mets. This was a largely unpopular move at the time, as Castillo had done quite well with the Twins offensively and defensively. At first, Casilla did little to justify this move, hitting only .222 in 189 at-bats in 2007.

The following season, Casilla did not see action until he was called up in mid-May after Nick Punto got injured. Almost immediately, he made an impact, especially with his bat. Casilla soon locked down the No. 2 spot in the lineup and became a valuable "table-setter" who ran well and displayed bursts of power. In 385 at-bats, Casilla hit .281 (.333 OBP) with 7 HRs and 50 RBIs. Casilla appeared to be the Twins' second baseman of the future.

But Casilla's performance declined drastically in 2009. After hitting .167 in his first 84 at-bats, the Twins sent Casilla down to Rochester in early May. Casilla resumed action with the Twins in late May and managed to collect 223 at-bats in 80 games. He never caught fire offensively, though, and wound up with a feeble average of .202, no HRs and 17 RBIs. Casilla looked almost nothing like the player he was in 2008, at least from an offensive standpoint.

Casilla's chief asset is his potential. The Twins saw what he is capable of during his big 2008season. He has also shown the ability to come through with big hits in clutch situations. Even during his miserable 2009, Casilla can say that he produced the game-winning hit to give the Twins both their first and last victories of the season (game No. 2 against Seattle and game No. 163 against Detroit). Defensively, Casilla is a fairly solid fielder, though he has played very little at any position other than second base.

Unlike Tolbert, Casilla is not viewed as a guy who hustles all the time. In fact, he has often been criticized for having a somewhat lackadaisical approach to the game. Casilla also appears to struggle more defensively when he his is in a hitting slump, and does not always seem to have his head in the game.

I really like both Casilla and Tolbert, and it was hard to watch both struggle last season. It was especially frustrating to see such a drastic decline from Casilla after his impressive 2008 campaign. In terms of a Casilla-versus-Tolbert breakdown, I believe Casilla has the edge offensively and Tolbert has the advantage defensively. Casilla showed that he is capable of being a formidable offensive weapon in 2008. Tolbert will probably never be more than an average hitter. From a defensive standpoint, Tolbert is more valuable because he has had significant time at second base, third base and shortstop. During his career, Tolbert has played 47 games at second base, 44 at third and 17 at short (he played first base once). Casilla, by contrast, has played 223 of his 234 games at second. He could probably play short well enough, but third does not seem to be an option for him.

This battle of infielders may come down to intangibles, where Tolbert has an edge. As a Punto-type player who is seen as someone who maximizes his potential, Tolbert has a huge advantage over Casilla. Any signs of mental lapses, disinterest or lack of hustle will draw ire from Gardenhire, and Gardy knows he doesn't have to worry about these issues with Tolbert like he does with Casilla.

This will be an interesting battle to watch in the coming weeks, and Valencia could emerge as a serious candidate for an opening-day roster spot. But this battle will be primarily be between Casilla and Tolbert, and both have a lot to prove.


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