External Utility Infield Options

This is perhaps the greatest picture of a human being ever taken. Luckily for me, it happens to be Elliot Johnson, meaning it coincides with my article. This is excellent news!

The Twins optioned Tsuyoshi Nishioka to Triple-A yesterday, surprising some not necessarily with the outcome, but the early nature of the transaction. More than a few Twins writers wrote that Nishioka looked far worse this year in Spring Training than last year though, and the hope is that he can begin to improve against lesser competition in an environment with less pressure.

Twins GM Terry Ryan hopped into the broadcast booth with Gordo Provus and Gladden yesterday and discussed the move. Ryan said he views Trevor Plouffe strictly as an emergency shortstop, and also said that while Brian Dozier could make the club out of Spring Training, it won't be as a utility player. It's hard to imagine Alexi Casilla being dropped to a utility role due to his strong Spring, and the same goes for Jamey Carroll due to the two-year contract he signed to play every day here.

Odds are, Dozier opens the season in Triple-A with Carroll and Casilla manning the middle infield. Luke Hughes will probably make the roster because he's out of options, but he's got to be behind Plouffe on the shortstop depth chart. The Twins could give Pedro Florimon a look, but he's 25 and hasn't played above Double-A... a level at which he owns a .671 OPS. Yikes.

Rhett Bollinger relayed some info from Ryan yesterday, stating that there's at least a chance the Twins look outside the organization for the utility role. I'll run down a couple of low-budget possibilities after the jump.

The Twins still have Joel Zumaya on the 40-man roster, and as our own Brandon Warne pointed out on Twitter a few weeks back, that could prove to be an ace in the hole with their waiver priority when teams are making tough decisions on out of options players later this month. Over at MLBTR, we've got a list of teams' out of options players, and I skimmed down it for some interesting names and came up with a couple of infield options in light of Ryan's comments:

Elliot Johnson, Rays

Johnson "hit" a Buterian .197/.257/.338 last season, but was excellent in the field by most metrics, and appeared all over the diamond. The always entertaining Joe Maddon used Johnson primarily at shortstop, but he also saw a little time at second base, and even had brief cameos at first base and in the outfield (including center).

In 2010, Johnson batted a whopping .319/.375/.475 at Triple-A as a 26-year-old, and while that does now make him a 28-year-old with a sub-.200 career MLB average, he's not far removed from offensive competence at a high level; that's more than a lot of the guys on the out of options list can say. Johnson was plagued by a putrid .260 BABIP last season and still posted a respectable, albeit slightly underwhelming 7.7% walk rate.

Tampa also has Sean Rodriguez, Reid Brignac, and Jeff Keppinger on their roster, in addition to Will Rhymes as a non-roster invitee. For that matter, Brignac could be a target as well, though he's not out of options, and as a former top prospect, they may simply prefer to let him play at Triple-A.

Tyler Greene, Cardinals

The Cardinals signed Rafael Furcal to a two-year deal this offseason, the conclusion of which will see Greene as a 30-year-old. A former first-round pick, Greene has posted .325 OBP over 243 plate appearances in the past two seasons, walking in 10.7% of his plate appearances in that time. Greene's hit .291/.373/.477 in 267 Triple-A games, and topped out at .323/.422/.579 last season.

Greene was projected to make the team's roster by MLB.com's Jen Langosch last month, and an injury to Skip Schumaker makes it unlikely that he hits waivers, but knowing that Schumaker and Allen Craig are working toward April returns could make them more willing to deal Greene if approached.

Mike Fontenot, Giants

To be clear, Fontenot doesn't appear on the out of options list, but he meets the "low budget" criteria. He doesn't have much of a track record at shortstop in the Majors, but the Giants placed him there for nearly 300 innings last season, and he's seen a small amount of time there at Triple-A as well.

Fontenot is signed for just $1.05M this season, and he's got a career walk rate of 9.0% to go along with a .332 OBP. That OBP is inflated by his fluke 2008 season (.305/.395/.514 in 119 games), but something along the .247/.310/.376 line he's posted in the three seasons since isn't terribly far-fetched.

San Francisco has Ryan Theriot, Freddy Sanchez, Brandon Crawford, and Emmanuel Burris all as middle infield options.

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Obviously, none of these options are drool-inducing, but when shopping for a low-cost backup infielder in Spring Training, it's tough to expect much. For what it's worth (which, truthfully, is little more than comic relief), the free agent market still, er... features (?) Aaron Miles and Felipe Lopez. Or, if you're feeling particularly insane, Miguel Tejada and Julio Lugo are out there, both of whom still have a pulse, I'm told.

The Twins may well stay in-house, but if a name like Elliot Johnson hits waivers later this month, he could prove a valuable asset in a backup role, and the Twins have the 40-man roster spot to burn.

Steve Adams also writes for MLBTradeRumors.com, RotoAuthority.com, and MLB.com Fantasy Baseball. You can follow him on Twitter: @Adams_Steve

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