For a long time now, the middle infield has been a place of struggles for the Minnesota Twins. Not since 2001, when Christian Guzman hit .302/.337/.477 (110 OPS+), has a Twins middle infielder had a OPS+ above 100. Sure, players like J.J. Hardy, Orlando Hudson, and Luis Castillo, while Jason Bartlett got very close in 2006 with a .309/.367/.393 (99 OPS+) line in 333 at-bats. Regardless, the Twins have not had consistently good production out of their middle infield and last year was no exception.
Injuries prevented the Twins from giving a season’s worth of at-bats to anyone, but no one performed very well at 2B or SS. Alexi Casilla did decently enough, hitting .260/.322/.368 with 15 steals in 323 at-bats (92 OPS+). Tsuyoshi Nishioka was abysmal, “hitting” .226/.278/.249 in 221 at-bats (48 OPS+) with just five extra-base hits and he even managed only 2 steals versus four times caught stealing. Not surprisingly, with his awful defense, he totaled -1.8 refWAR/-1.4 fWAR last year in limited time. The rest of the at-bats went to Trevor Plouffe (.238/.305/.392, 286 at-bats, 92 OPS+), Luke Hughes (.223/.289/.338, 287 at-bats, 74 OPS+), and Matt Tolbert (.198/.252/.266, 207 at-bats, 44 OPS+). Plouffe at least showed some power, but his defense rated so power that he had negative WAR (-1.5 refWAR, -0.6 fWAR), hence his move to the outfield/DH. Hughes defense rated well enough that he didn’t hurt the team as much. On the upside, Tolbert at least finally left the Twins, which is necessarily addition by subtraction.
One of the Twins offseason acquisitions was Jamey Carroll, who is likely to see a lot of time at shortstop. Carroll is a solid player, but he’s also 38, likely stretched defensively at short at this point in his career (he’s played a lot more second in his career), and has no power. Carroll’s main asset is his ability to get on base, as evidenced by his career .356 OBP and 9.9% walk rate. That’s a improvement certainly over most of last year’s crowd, especially at short, but it’s likely only a marginal difference maker. Nonetheless, Carroll’s .290/.359/.347 line (98 OPS+) would have led the pack last year. Still, that’s more of a indictment of the Twins’ deficiencies at the position than anything else. It would certainly seem better that Carroll gets more time there than Nishioka, but it’s unclear exactly what the split will be and what kind of “utility” player Nishioka will be deployed as. We only know he’s going to get a shot at short.
Here’s my SS projections:
Carroll: .275/.340/.345, 110 games
Nishioka: .255/.305/.335, 40 games
Brian Dozier: .255/.325/.355, 20 games
At second, Casilla seems like the presumptive starter. As much, his offense wasn’t entirely abysmal last year before he got injured. At 27, however, he’s probably not going to even much better than he was last year. That gives him some value, but it certainly means that the Twins could improve. Nishioka will likely seem plenty of time at second, as much as he’ll probably see time at shortstop. As my batting line projection for him suggests, I don’t really expect much of anything from him.
The other player that seems to be in the equation is Brian Dozier. Aaron Gleeman has already covered Tom Powers’ “prospect hyperbole” column about how great Dozier will be and I’m more or less with Gleeman. Dozier has plenty of potential to be a solid regular, but let’s not push the expectations too high. Dozier will be 25 in May and has yet to play a single game at AAA. In 491 at-bats between A and AA last year, Dozier hit .320/.399/.491, which is plenty impressive for a shortstop. Dozier has played most of his games as a shortstop in the minors, but he’s played 43 at second as well. Given that Carroll was signed with an expectation of playing more short, I expect that whenever Dozier does join the team, he’ll split time between the positions. His power was mostly produced on the back of 33 doubles and 12 triples, as Dozier hit only 9 HRs. His 66/55 K/BB ratio is a good sign and 24 steals is a nice addition, though one shouldn’t ignore the fact he was caught 11 times (a subpar 68.6% rate). Dozier hit only 16 HRs in college and totaled only 5 in his first two minor-league seasons, which may suggest that he’ll never profile with much power.
Given Dozier’s age and minor-league progress (initial total lack of power, has yet to play in AAA), it’s not surprisingly that ZIPS doesn’t project him to do much this year, predicting a .254/.313/.353 line from him with 6 HRs in 153 games with 15 steals and a .295 wOBA. While that seems cynical, one thing I’ll note is that even if that happened, it would still cause me to prefer Dozier over Nishioka and possibly over Casilla. Casilla is nearly three years older and we know what his ceiling likely is–inconsistent defense, decent speed and no power. If nothing else, Dozier could possibly match that package with the possibility of better on-base ability while being paid less and adding the roster flexibility. Even if Powers is wrong–which he more than likely is–and Dozier is just decent to solid regular, that is still possibly an improvement over the current situation. However, the Twins are likely to give plenty of chances to Casilla and Nishioka–especially given that they’ve yet to add him to the 40-man roster.
So far, through a few Spring Training games, not much has changed. Nishioka is hitting .273/.273/.364 through 22 at-bats while Dozier has 3 hits in 15 at-bats. None of that can really tell us anything meaningful–Luke Hughes has a .500 slugging percentage right now and everyone knows that’s not a new skill. Hughes could also seem some time at second, but his contribution offensively is not likely to be much different from the other candidates. Second will likely, therefore, continue to be a weak spot for the Twins.
Here’s the projections for 2B:
Casilla: .265/.310/.365, 70 games, 10 SBs (ZIPS: .261/.324/.361)
Dozier: .255/.325/.355, 50 games
Nishioka: .255/.305/.335, 25 games (ZIPS: .271/.327/.376)
Hughes: .240/.295/.355, 25 games (ZIPS: .229/.288/.363)