I've gotten the sense that people have grown tired of me writing so much about Alexi Casilla's struggles lately. Good news: you won't have to anymore, at least not for a while. That's because the Twins yesterday demoted Casilla to Triple-A Rochester and recalled Matt Tolbert to take his place on the roster. Thus, one of my preseason predictions comes true far earlier than even I expected.
It's the right move. Casilla has been absolutely disastrous at the plate this year, and recently his play in the field has taken a turn for the worse. He has been taking terrible at-bats, failing to run out ground balls and making inexcusable mental mistakes while on defense. And while keeping him in the second spot in the batting order regularly was ostensibly supposed to boost his confidence and get him back on track, his play has only deteriorated and his confidence seemed to be sloping downward. Quite simply, there is no way to justify keeping him as a regular in the lineup at this point, especially in the two-hole.
This might come as a shock to some, but I actually like Casilla. I don't think he's a very good ballplayer at this point, but he strikes me as a friendly, happy and easy-going guy. When I followed the team to Kansas City for a road trip back in 2007, I saw Casilla along with a couple other players strolling through the downtown strip at night after completing a day game. While the rest of the players in the group, which included Carlos Silva and Luis Castillo, seemed grumpy and unapproachable, Casilla had a big smile on his face and stepped with a giddy stride as he made his way through the crowded storefront. I truly want him to succeed and hope he can straighten things out in Rochester, but that doesn't change the fact that he was doing nothing to help the Twins at this point.
The logical choice to replace Casilla as regular second baseman is Brendan Harris, who has swung the bat very well this season and would give the lineup a much-needed jolt against left-handed pitching. However, Ron Gardenhire seems to have some sort of vendetta against Harris. In spite of Harris' outstanding showing in spring training, the manager reportedly didn't want to bring the infielder north, and Harris has received only meager playing time up to this point even though he's batted .308 while Casilla has struggled. I realize that there are questions about Harris' defense and his ability to turn a double play at second base, but I believe these are overstated. The most reliable defensive metrics show that Harris' range at second has been only slightly below average over the past couple seasons, and the fact that he's a bit slow on turning the twin killing is not nearly the big deal that some make it out to be.
Nevertheless, I wouldn't be surprised to see Tolbert get a solid chunk of playing time at second base in Casilla's absence. Tolbert has hit just .260/.324/.375 in Triple-A thus far, but his bat has heated up lately (.356 average over his last 10 games), which likely earned him the call-up. In the long run, he's likely to be a replacement level bat at the major-league level, but given his solid defensive capabilities he'd probably be serviceable as a short-term option at second base. Still, I think the Twins would be better served using him as a utility man -- moving him around the infield and getting him into the lineup two or three times per week. If Gardenhire's distaste for Harris wins out and Tolbert does take over as the regular second baseman, he certainly shouldn't be hitting second in the lineup, as he did in last night's rain-shortened game. It will be interesting to see how Gardy handles that situation.
The Twins came into this season counting on Casilla to be a key part of their lineup. Now, just one month into the season, he's out of the lineup and off the major-league roster. I think it was a mistake not to have any sort of real backup plan in place considering Casilla's erratic history as a player, but alas, the Twins will have to fall back on Harris and Tolbert and hope that one of the two can step up and provide a meaningful improvement at second base.