Twins depth up the middle

Going into 2003, the Twins had perhaps the worst depth in baseball up the middle. There was not a prospect behind Cristian Guzman who projected more than a cup of coffee as a utility player. Luis Rivas had a couple of fellow Venezuelans behind him (Luis Rodriguez and Luis Maza), but they were slow and small and projected as bench players at best. As the  early hype for Rivas and Guzman started to fade into bleak projections of future futility, Terry Ryan had perhaps his biggest challenge as a GM ahead of him: how to rebuild his middle infield as the rest of his team busts out, and on a budget.

The first thing he did was acquire Jason Bartlett for Buck Buchanon. At the time Bartlett was a little known former 12th-round draft choice who was old for the California League. Perhaps the only thing he had going for him was Terry Ryan's vote of confidence. That turned out to be plenty. He started hitting almost as soon as he came to the organization and he put up some eye-popping numbers as he moved through the organization a level a year. He stuggled a little to break through to the majors, but once he did, he became a fixture at short for this team and a key cog in the team's incredible run from third to last to second best record in the AL in 2006.

As he struggles through his first major slump since breaking through, he knows he still has Ryan's vote of confidence. And for the first time, he has Gardy's. So I'm optimistic he'll get it together on this homestand and have another good year.

The next thing Ryan did was to give a rare mandate to his scouting director Mike Radcliff: Put a priority on middle infielders in the upcoming two drafts. This didn't mean he had to draft middle infielders exclusively or anything. He still had to draft the best player available each time the Twins spot came up. But if more than one player graded out the same in one draft slot, all things considered, draft a middle infielder.

When all is said and done, the 2004 draft will go down as the Twins best overall, not necessarily for the middle infielders the Twins acquired, but for the pitchers. When this year is over, the Twins could have four or five pitchers in BA's top 100 from that draft. But the Twins did draft three middle infielders in that draft, and they are all doing well. Trevor Plouffe has been disappointing so far despite being taken ahead of all that great pitching, but he appears to be moving through the system at a typical pace anyway; and when his skills catch up to his tools, he could be very good. He is having a good start to his AA year at New Britain, which is a first for him. So perhaps this is the year for him to break out.

The Twins also drafted Matt Tolbert in 2004. He is similar to Bartlett in that he is a former college player who has had good success at every level, but he's flown under the radar because of his age. He is currently the starting shortstop at AAA, but he still projects as a utility player at this time. That can change with more success, as it did with Bartlett.

The sleeper of the 2004 draft is Juan Portes, who was drafted in the 16th round because he didn't play high school ball. The Twins scouts noticed him in a summer league and scooped him up. He has had two good years at rookie league ball and one poor year at low A Beloit; which had more to do with injuries and infrequent play than ability. This year, he's busting out big time as the number 3 hitter for Fort Myers. He has a major league bat, but he might need to shift to the outfield to make it. He is moving between second and in left right now.

The Twins drafted three shortstops high in the 2005 draft. Their two second-round choices--Drew Thompson and Paul Kelly--have had good success, especially playing in low A ball as teenagers. They are currently in the disabled list for Beloit, but both could make an impression this year, hopefully at Fort Myers. They are too good to repeat a level.

The Twins also drafted college junior Stephen Tolleson high in the 2005 draft. He's leading off and playing short for Fort Myers and hitting the snot out of the ball. At this rate, he could earn a promotion to New Britain where he would play with more players his age (23) sooner rather than later.

Before the 2006 season, Ryan finally dumped Rivas and acquired the veteran Luis Castillo for a two-year rental to bridge the gap until some of the newly acquired depth makes it to the majors. He has played as expected, and is a key contributor to a contending team for his two-year stay. With his body falling apart on the turf, it looks as though Ryan has several good options to replace him in 2008.

Perhaps Ryan's biggest master stroke in the quest for middle infield depth came just before spring training of 2006, when he sent JC Romero to the Angels for Alexi Casilla. Casilla proceeded to become the Twins Minor League Player of the Year in 2006. Casilla is a dynamic player with great speed, a strong arm, and very good plate discipline. He projects as the prototypical lead-off guy. And he should be the regular second baseman in 2008. In the unlikely event that Bartlett continues to struggle, he would be ready to take over at short as well. Like I said, I don't expect that, but it's nice to have a player with the offensive prowess of Casilla who can play either short or second equally well.

The Twins also drafted some good middle infield talent in the 2006 draft. Second baseman Brian Dinkleman is a college player with a good bat who's hitting near the top of the order at Beloit. And shortstop Stephen Singleton led the E-Town Twins in hitting last year as a 20 year old out of San Diego State. Like Bartlett and Tolbert before him, he will always fly under the radar because of his age. But if he continues to hit like that, he will make the organization take notice. Unfortunately, the Twins have so much depth they can't even promote their top hitter from the Appy league last year, and Singleton is stuck in the Instructional League. But his time will come, and he should complement the Twins strong depth up the middle.

In less than four years, Ryan took this organization from last in baseball to near the top in terms of middle infield depth. That is quite an accomplishment on such a lean budget. This organization gets a lot of press for its pitching depth. After this year, middle infield depth should be on par with the pitching. That's a credit to Ryan and Radcliff and the whole scouting department.