For the past several seasons, the Twins infield has been a carousel of over-used role players, washed-up veterans, and stop-gap signings. Outside of Justin Morneau, the team has had virtually zero stability in the infield since the days of Rivas, Guzman, and Koskie. In fact, the Twins haven't featured the same opening day starter at second, short, or third in any back-to-back seasons since Luis Castillo in 2006-2007.
Before 2010, it hadn't exactly been a productive arrangement. At second, the Twins got a couple good seasons from Castillo, followed by middling years from Harris and Casilla. Shortstop saw Jason Bartlett give way to Adam Everett, Nick Punto, and 200 at-bats from Orlando Cabrera. Third was a disaster - just think of the following names: Tony Batista, Nick Punto, Mike Lamb, Brian Buscher, Joe Crede.
Then, thankfully, mercifully, we had 2010. The Twins added Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy. Hudson was everything we could have asked for; Hardy was productive when healthy. And then there was the emergence of Danny Valencia, a welcome surprise that gave Twins fans hope for the future at a position that had long been the teams Achilles' heel. For the first time in several years, the Twins had a formidable infield, even playing through the absence of their MVP first baseman.
Having enjoyed the bounty of a good-hitting, good-fielding infield, Twins fans can be forgiven for feeling a bit of disappointment in its dismantling this off-season. Hudson finally got the multi-year deal he deserved years ago, and Hardy was moved to Baltimore for relief help. Losing Hudson and Hardy means the Twins will once again have a completely new opening day cast at second, third, and short in 2011.
But it also means the Twins will enter 2011 with an infield that shares some key characteristics: they're each young; they each have a realistic shot of becoming or remaining everyday players for the foreseeable future; and they're each under team control beyond 2011. Could it be that after years of spare parts and short-term fixes, the Twins infield of today could finally be the Twins infield of the future?
It's certainly possible. Morneau is under contract through 2013, and, assuming he's able to swing a bat and field his position, will have first base locked up until the end of his contract. The front office is showing considerable faith in Casilla - who is just in his first year of arbitration - by essentially giving him a starting job going into spring training. The team spent $5 million just to talk to Nishioka, who is under team control until at least 2013. Valencia was tremendous last season, and even assuming he goes through a sophomore slump, seems likely to be given a lengthy leash at third (especially now that Punto is no longer on the roster).
Of course, we have a long way to go before we call this the infield of the future: Casilla needs to prove he can hold a starting job, Nishioka has to prove he can hit major league pitchers, and Valencia has to prove the second half of 2010 was a sign of things to come. These are not small concerns. We've seen Casilla struggle for long stretches before, and many were caught off guard by the Twins eagerness to hand him a starting role in 2011. Nishioka will certainly face a steep learning curve coming to the US (although ZIPS has him pegged as a pretty good bargain - 281/337/403). And many suspect that Valencia, the diamond in the rough of 2010, will face some steep regression in 2011.
Personally, I find it hard to believe that we'll see the 2011 combination of Casilla, Nishioka, and Valencia replace the production we got from Hudson, Hardy, and Valencia in 2010. In fact, the infield - including the health of Justin Morneau - remains my chief concern going into the new season.
However, if you trust the front office's confidence in Alexi Casilla, the scouting department's faith in Tsuyoshi Nishioka, and your own eyes in the hitting prowess of Danny Valencia, the Twins may very well have put in place the key pieces of their infield for the foreseeable future. And after the past several seasons, it would be a welcome relief to finally have some stability and reliability around the Twins infield.