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A Weekend of Alexi

When Luis Castillo pulled up lame into second base last Thursday, it assured us our first extended look at the future of the middle infield.

Amidst the occasional good pitching, the sparse intelligent base running and some quiet bats on Sunday, Alexi Casilla was showing moments of the promise that made him the object of desire in the trade that sent J.C. Romero to the Angels in December of 2005.  Casilla put down a nice tag on an attempted stolen base by Reggie Sanders, snagged a couple of stolen bases himself and scored a couple of runs.  There were very few bright spots over the weekend, but Casilla's promise was one of them.

Since entering the lineup on Thursday, the 22-year old is 5-for-16 (.313) with 3 runs scored, 3 stolen bases and 2 strikeouts.  He has yet to tally a base on balls or an extra-base hit, but he has shown plate discipline in the minors in regards to the former, and won't be a long-ball threat in regards to the latter; one will come, the other isn't a part of his repetoire.

Drafted in February of 2003 as an amateur free agent by the then Anaheim Angels, Casilla began his professional career in America in 2004.  He shot from rookie ball to Anaheim's AAA affiliate by the end of 2005.  Once in the Twins system he started in high-A ball, advanced to AA after 78 games, and even had a cup of coffee with the Twins last fall.  Overall, Casilla's minor league numbers play out like this:

Games   AB   H   XBH   SB   BB   SO   Avg   Obp   Slg
 279  1063  326   57  125  106  110  .307  .377  .383

As with the vast majority of baseball players, to see the value of a player it's necessary to look at what they can do as opposed to what they can't do.  While Casilla can't hit for power bar a speed-aided double, he can play defense, run like the wind, work a count and lay off some marginal pitches.  At least, this is what his minor league numbers insist.  Should he carry these strengths over to the major league level (79% stolen base success rate, a nearly 1-to-1 walk to strikeout ratio), he could become one of the game's premier lead-off hitters.

It's been mentioned more than once that Alexi Casilla's game resembles that of the man he replaced on Thursday night, Luis Castillo.  (Compare for yourself here.)  Castillo is one of the more successful outcomes for a player like Alexi, because for every light-hitting speedster like a Castillo, there a number of other players with the same assets who fizzle out.  Still, Casilla's young, athletic and has shown the ability to adapt as he's graduated levels.  At 22, I'm hoping that his career goes closer the way of Steve Sax as opposed to Luis Rivas.

Casilla's swing certainly does resemble what Castillo likes to do from time to time; the semi-swing that's more of a bunt, which if ideally executed allows an extra step or two to be taken out of the box before the defense even reacts.  Meanwhile, the ball moves just far enough that it dies in no-man's land between the pitcher, catcher and one of the corner bases, enabling the speed of the hitter to get down the line before the play can be made.

Ah, the strength of speed...

Casilla's defense benefits from his quick feet, enabling him to move to his left and his right pretty well.  Sunday afternoon he flashed his ability to turn a double play, taking the relay from Jason Bartlett, transfering the ball from glove to hand cleanly, and getting good power on the throw to first in spite of being mid-air and mid-collision with the base runner.  His stature (5-9, 160 lbs) gives him a lower center of balance, allowing him to not only make acrobatic maneuvers like the aforementioned, but allowing him to make plays on ground balls that couldn't be made by taller or lankier athletes.

Pecota's forecast currently sees Casilla in the same light most Twins fans do.  Over the next five years, Pecota expects him to be a threat on the basepaths (40 steals if given full-time status in '07), to carry a decent OBP (as high as .375), to have more value defensively than offensively and to have power like Nick Punto.

If Luis Castillo does go on the disabled list, Alexi Casilla will make more than an adequate replacement.  His tools are there, and as he gets his time on the field his game will tighten up, leading to a time when we're not seeing his abilities in flashes, but as a consistent display from game to game and at-bat to at-bat.

He's certainly been fun to watch, and after a weekend like the Twins just had, you really need that kind of thing.