Likely Starter: Alexi Casilla
Potential Backups: Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Trevor Plouffe, Matt Tolbert
Good starting shortstops are tough to come by. The Twins know this better than anyone; since Cristian Guzman's departure following the 2004 season, they have struggled mightily to find a legitimate long-term solution at the position, with 12 different players making starts there over the past six years and only one (Jason Bartlett in 2007) starting more than 100 games in a season.
A position that has seen more changes of direction than a drunken frat boy after a bat spin will once again follow a fresh blueprint in 2011, with the Twins turning to perpetual underachiever Alexi Casilla in what will likely be his last chance to prove himself as a starter.
You can count on two fingers the number of times in the past decade that the Twins have had someone play in 100 games at shortstop and post an OPS higher than .700 (Guzman in 2001 and Hardy in 2010 -- that's it), so offensive expectations for Casilla should be set low, particularly considering that he himself is a .249/.306/.327 hitter in 1,073 career plate appearances.
Fortunately, since he'll be hitting ninth in the batting order, low expectations are OK on the offensive end. If Casilla can prove merely competent with the stick while swiping a few bases here and there, he can avoid being a liability at the bottom of the lineup. Competency is no given for Casilla, though, as his lifetime hitting line and execrable offensive performances in 2007 and 2009 will attest.
Casilla is also a question mark on the defensive end. He's made only 24 big-league starts at shortstop and, given the mixed reviews for his glove at second base, there's plenty of reason to wonder whether he can hack it full-time at one of the field's most challenging and important positions.
The Twins like Casilla and were adamant about giving him one more shot, largely because he's fast and inexpensive, but their ability to identify quality shortstops over the past six years has hardly been a strength, and given his spotty history and lack of prolonged success as a starter we must acknowledge that there's a fairly decent chance Casilla will fizzle out.
That's a rather frightening scenario because the depth behind him is almost non-existent.
Should Casilla warrant removal from the lineup, it's possible that Ron Gardenhire could shift Tsuyoshi Nishioka to short, since finding a new starter at second base would be considerably easier. I do wonder, however, if the coaching staff would actually trust Nishioka as anything more than an emergency play at shortstop, given that they've shown little interest in having the Japanese import even try his hand at the position this spring.
The other options to replace Casilla would be Trevor Plouffe, a natural shortstop who seems nowhere near ready to play in the majors, and Matt Tolbert, who is stretched both offensively and defensively as a regular.
Ultimately, the Twins are counting on a player with a .633 career OPS who has never played 100 games in a big-league season to finally overcome his flaws and transform into a serviceable starting shortstop. If that doesn't happen, they'll have to cycle through unproven and inexperienced players until they can find someone who will adequately carry the load.
In short, this position has an awful lot of potential to become a major headache for the Twins in 2011.
Predicted 2011 Hitting Line for Casilla: .250/.310/.320, 3 HR, 30 RBI