Any talk of the Twins offense this year is likely to center around a particular group of players. Questions like these will swirl in people's minds: Can Joe Mauer repeat as batting champ? Can Justin Morneau replicate his amazing 2006 campaign? Will Torii Hunter come up big in his contract year? Will Rondell White hit more like he did in the second half of last season? Can Jason Kubel keep his knees healthy? Can Nick Punto prove that he's for real?
Certainly, those are all important questions. But there is one player that tends to get overlooked in all of the excitement and uncertainty, and that player is the steady -- if unspectacular -- second baseman Luis Castillo. Much enthusiasm was generated here in Minnesota when the Twins acquired Castillo from the Marlins last offseason in exchange for pitching prospects Travis Bowyer and Scott Tyler. Fans who had just been forced to sit through a season of watching guys like Luis Rivas and Bret Boone at second base were ecstatic to get a former All-Star and Gold Glove winner at the position. The deal looked good then, and it looks even better now. The Marlins released Bowyer this spring, and Tyler had a mediocre season at Double-A last year.
Castillo was as advertised in his first season with the Twins. He batted .296, swiped 25 bags, didn't strike out much, and generally played well in the field. Perhaps his most important function was serving as an effective leadoff man after replacing Shannon Stewart at the top of the lineup mid-way through the season. Castillo has become the first true leadoff hitter that the Twins have had since Chuck Knoblauch. We fans have grown accustomed to seeing ill-fitted players like the hacktastic Jacque Jones and the complacent Cristian Guzman filling the leadoff role; even Stewart -- a good hitter in his own right -- would not generally be classified as a true leadoff guy in the sense that he was not known for his patience or his ability to work deep into counts. Castillo is extremely patient at the plate -- sometimes to a fault. He typically works deep into counts and gives his teammates on the bench and in the on-deck circle an opportunity to get a sense of what the opposing pitcher is bringing on a particular day. Some have criticized Castillo for a lack of effort on the field. Indeed, he frequently jogs to first base on grounders and occasionally slouches on defense. In the end, however, Castillo is a consistent defender who turns in the occasional amazing play, and it's tough to criticize his laziness on the basepaths when he's still able to steal 25 bases and lead the league in infield hits.
This will be an important year for Castillo. He's now had a full season to acclimate himself to the American League, which could lead to improved numbers. He is in the final year of his contract, which may provide additional motivation. Of course, he is also 31 years old and those gimpy knees don't seem to be getting any better, so the possibility of decline or injury is present.
The Twins do have a potential replacement waiting in the wings in the form of Alexi Casilla. He had a stellar season in the minors last year, and the Twins seem to feel that he is nearing major-league readiness. Ron Gardenhire expressed a strong desire this spring to take him north as a backup infielder, but in the end the team decided it was more important that he get regular at-bats as a starter with Rochester. If Casilla plays well at the Triple-A level early this season, he could make Castillo a tradable commodity. While an aging middle-infielder with bad knees is probably not going to net anything amazing in a trade, I'm sure there will be a market for a veteran leadoff presence like Castillo, and Terry Ryan is known for maximizing value on trade returns. Plus, if Castillo has a good first half, it would only help increase his appeal to other clubs.
The success of the Twins lineup will no doubt be mostly dependent on the production of guys like Mauer and Morneau, but it's important to remember that every night this lineup starts with its reliable leadoff man, and he could be important than some people think this year.