Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Twins Reach Agreement With Alexi Casilla

After a nightmarish 2009 season that saw the Twins combination of middle infielders hit just slightly better than a random sampling of National League pitchers, the Twins moved aggressively to get better, trading for J.J. Hardy and signing the veteran Orlando Hudson. The moves worked out well and the Twins we're markedly better in the middle infield both offensively and defensively.

One of the culprits of that 2009 middle infield abomination was Alexi Casilla, who chipped in a ghastly .202/.280/.259 line. To lend some credence to the term "abomination," and prove my point about them hitting like National League pitchers, consider that nine NL pitchers posted better OPS numbers than Casilla's .538 mark.

Thankfully, Casilla isn't really THAT bad of a hitter. He sandwiched his 2009 season with decent enough seasons in 2008 and 2010, posting OPS marks of .707 and .726 respectively. Casilla has never, and will never hit for much power but he makes good contact (13.4% career K rate), draws a respectable enough number of walks (7.2% career BB rate), and has shown the ability to hit for an average in the .275 range.

Given that I'm currently projecting Casilla to open the season as the Twins starting shortstop - something that's not at all set in stone - a .700 OPS or better would leave him just slightly ahead of the MLB average of .690 at that position in 2010. Should he instead be used as a second baseman, it'd leave him just shy of the .726 OPS MLB second basemen averaged.

Defensively Casilla has been below average at second, a position where he's logged significantly more innings. His UZR/150 stands at -7.9 runs for his career at that position. At shortstop, which is his natural position, he's been significantly better, posting an outrageous +25.7 mark, but that's almost certainly a sample-size related fluke.

One thing Casilla will add to the Twins is speed on the bases. Of course, being fast is one thing, but being a good base stealer is something all together different. Numerous studies have shown that in order for a base runner to actually make a positive impact, he needs to be successful in about 75% of his attempts - otherwise he's actually costing his team runs by sacrificing outs. In that regard, Casilla succeeds. Casilla has shown that in an everyday role he could be good for 25-30 stolen bases and if he can maintain his incredible 89.7% career success rate, he'll add an extra dimension to the bottom of the order.

Casilla was never in line for a big salary in this, his first year of arbitration eligibility and the 865k he got was pretty much exactly in line with the 800k I had him projected for. 2011 will represent both a big opportunity for Casilla and a big risk. This will likely be his last chance to prove to the Twins he can be an every day player. If he can't, the Twins would likely be ready to give former first round pick Trevor Plouffe, who made his MLB debut last year after a solid AAA campaign, a real shot.

Casilla has the skills to be a light hitting speedster at the bottom of the order, but he's never been able to prove it over a full season. The Twins have a lot of very talented players, but there will be a lot resting on the diminutive shoulders of Alexi Casilla. If he fails to produce it'll leave a huge void in the Twins order and could cost them a few important wins.

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