Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Future of Casilla

Earlier this week, the Twins removed infielder Steve Tolleson from the 40-man roster to make room for the recently acquired Jim Thome. Tolleson, who grabbed the 10th spot on my list of the Top 10 Twins prospects a year ago, has seen his prospect status drop rapidly over the past 12 months. Last year was sort of a make-or-break season, as he was 25 years old and reaching the point where he needed to make a name for himself at the highest level of the minors. Coming off a 2008 campaign in which he'd posted an excellent .300/.382/.466 line at Class-AA New Britain, Tolleson seemed poised to do just that, but instead he went on to hit just .266/.340/.380 between Double-A and Triple-A. Now 26, Tolleson will look to catch on with the A's, who claimed him off waivers from the Twins.

Losing Tolleson is hardly devastating. While I probably liked him more than most, borderline major-league infielders of his ilk are none too difficult to come by. Speaking of borderline major-league infielders, let's talk about a guy who survived this particular cut but remains on tenuous ground in the Twins organization: Alexi Casilla.

At one point, Casilla was the heir apparent at second base for the Twins. Having been acquired from the Angels in the J.C. Romero trade, Casilla hit .318/.385/.398 and went 50-for-60 on stolen base attempts between Single-A and Double-A during the 2006 season, his first as a member of the Twins organization. Just 22 years old, Casilla was establishing himself as a top-of-the-lineup presence who could eventually step in to replace the rapidly aging veteran Luis Castillo.

The Twins gave Casilla that chance midway through the 2007 season, when they traded Castillo at the deadline and handed Casilla the everyday gig at second. Unfortunately, Casilla failed to seize the opportunity, batting .219 with only eight walks and five extra-base hits in 159 plate appearances from July 31 to the end of the year.

The 2008 season represented a rebound for Casilla, as he shook off a slow start and performed well for the Twins when he was called up in May out of roster-depleted desperation. Casilla's .313/.351/.424 hitting line over his first 62 games after being called up that season restored the organization's faith in him, but he was derailed by a wrist injury in July that cost him a month and saw him bat just .225 the rest of the way after he returned in late August.

The late struggles in '08 unfortunately carried forth into 2009, where Casilla hit just .202/.280/.259 -- essentially a repeat of his brutal 2007 campaign. Furthermore, Casilla no longer has age on his side, as he'll turn 26 this August. The Twins are also running out of ways to keep him around, since he's out of options and the club is already going to be short on roster spots now with Thome's addition.

If he could live up to his potential, Casilla is precisely the kind of guy Ron Gardenhire would like to have manning second base. He is viewed as a strong defender (although he scores very poorly on the UZR metric) and fits Gardy's mold as a No. 2 hitter with his speed and bunting proficiency. I suspect that fact -- combined with his impressive work as a younger player in the low minors -- is why he continues to hang around. Yet, unless Casilla has an explosive spring, it's difficult to see how the Twins will justify keeping him. He has already fumbled away multiple opportunities to grasp a starting gig, and seeing as how he lacks Matt Tolbert's versatility (namely the proven ability to play third base), it's tough to see him winning the back-up infielder job if there is only one available. Even if Casilla sneaks onto the roster, the Twins aren't likely to exercise a lot of patience with him given his inability to show any meaningful, sustained progress over the 900 plate appearances he has already amassed at the major-league level.

If he could come anywhere close to matching his .298/.371/.375 minor-league line at the big-league level, Casilla could yet transform into a valuable contributor for the Twins. But the odds of that happening have grown increasingly slim as he has continued to fail in his auditions with the big-league club. As it stands, Casilla is a 25-year-old infielder with a .244 career average, a complete lack of power and a lower major-league walk rate than Brendan Harris, who no one would mistake for a prototypical table-setter. It's not hard to see why the Twins have been patient with Casilla up to this point in his career, but given that they're clearly trying to make their push, and given that his lack of options is forcing their hand, can they really afford to remain patient any longer?

4 comments:

CA said...

The situation gets even more cut-and-dried if the Twins sign another infielder. That seems somewhat unlikely at this point, but it wouldn't surprise me either, given the current market. Casilla is on the bubble as it stands, but another IF on the roster would pretty much guarantee his ticket out of town.

Realities like this make it even weirder that people like LEN3 didn't want Casilla included in a deal for a Kouzmanoff-type player. Even before the Thome signing, Casilla was unlikely to play a huge role on the team.

ScottyB said...

I'm finding it curious that with the release of Tolleson, that Thome hasn't been officially signed. He was supposed to have a physical during Twins Fest - could there be a glitch preventing the official signing?

Nick N. said...

The Thome signing was made official today.

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