Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Alexi Casilla

Early last week I took a look at the Twins payroll obligations for the 2011 season and what I believed to be their biggest needs heading into the off-season. If you already read it, you can just skip down past the quotes. In case you missed that post and have no desire to read through it now, here's what I wrote regarding the payroll:

These numbers put the Twins current 2011 obligations at about $101.6MM. If the Twins have a conservative approach, that would leave them with just under $9MM to spend. I expect about a 20% increase though this year, at least, so I'm going to put the Twins maximum payroll at $123MM, but contending teams like the Twins almost always try to leave some room in their payroll in-case they have the chance to add an impact player during the year. I'd put the Twins expected opening day payroll at about $117MM, give or take a few million. That gives us about $15MM to spend.

So, what are the needs that the Twins will hopefully attempt to fill with that money? Again, here's a recap of what I felt were their biggest needs:

Second Base, like it is every year, is a major need yet again with Orlando Hudson having a sub-par year and becoming a free agent. A utility man would be nice, as Tolbert isn't a major league caliber player and despite making almost $2MM next year, Harris has a long ways to go to be back with the Twins. The Twins also need to find an impact bench bat that rips lefties. Someone like Marcus Thames, who can hit for Kubel in late-game situations against lefties and also get most starts at DH when a left-hander starts the game. The team will likely look to add one or two relievers as well, and I'm sure they'll look to bring Thome back.

However, despite the team likely to lose Carl Pavano, who had a great year, the team really doesn't need a starter. They have five solid under-30 starters that given another full year should be just fine. They also have Anthony Swarzak in AAA for depth purposes, and top prospect Kyle Gibson could be ready as soon as Opening Day to jump into the rotation, so the team has both talent and depth for the first time in quite a while. No reason to spend money on the rotation as it's better allocated to other parts of the team.

As of right now, the plan seems to be for the Twins to give Alexi Casilla the second base job. Rather than try to make another veteran signing for somewhere near $5MM for one year like they gave Hudson last off-season, the team's thinking seems to be that Casilla can provide similar numbers at a much more cost-effective salary. There's no arguing that Casilla is much cheaper than a veteran second baseman would likely be; he's going to make slightly above the minimum. However, expecting Casilla to be even average over a full season isn't the best way to ensure the Twins make the playoffs for a third straight season.

After posting above average minor league numbers in both 2005 and 2006, Casilla seemed to be a solid middle-infield prospect. He wasn't going to be an all-star, but he had good speed and his on-base percentage was .380 during that time. He appeared to be a solid future top of the lineup hitter, and while playing second base or shortstop with good speed he was going to be a big part of the team's future.

Unfortunately, since 2007, Casilla has done very little to suggest he's a major league caliber starter. In his first stint at AAA in 2007, he hit just .269/.345/.344 in 84 games. The on-base percentage isn't terrible, but the slugging percentage is absolutely brutal and after factoring in what is usually a 10-15% decline from AAA to the bigs, Casilla should have struggled when he was called up. And that's precisely what he did. In just under 200 at-bats in 56 games, Casilla hit an abysmal .222/.256/.259. To put that into perspective, Casilla's .516 OPS was almost exactly half of Mauer's 1.031 OPS from 2009. The only positive was that Casilla stole 11 bases in 12 tries, but when you're getting on base less than 26% of the time there simply aren't many opportunities to run.

In 2008, Casilla again spent the majority of the first half of the season in AAA. He struggled yet again, hitting just .219/.350/.250 in 121 at bats. Injuries to the Twins already weak middle infield left Casilla as literally the only option to be called up despite his struggles, and unlike 2007 Casilla greatly outperformed his expectations and put up a .281/.333/.374 line in just under 400 at-bats. His offensive season was pretty much exactly average for the 2008 season, and while his defense was inconsistent there were flashes of brilliance in the field that suggested if he put it all together he could be a gold-glover. The Twins again appeared to be fairly high on Casilla and he went into the 2009 season as the projected starter at second base.

He simply couldn't capture the same magic that he seemed to have in 2008 though, as he struggled all year. He hit just .202/.280/.259 in 80 games, and the Twins were forced to go out and acquire Orlando Cabrera at the trading deadline to try to help upgrade the middle of their infield. After the debacle that was the 2009 season, the Twins seemed to give up on Casilla and when the team signed Orlando Hudson to a one-year contract, there was a distinct possibility that Casilla wouldn't even make the team. Since he was out of options, meaning the Twins couldn't send him to the minor leagues without first giving every team in baseball a chance to pick him up for free, the Twins ultimately decided to keep Casilla on the roster as the 25th man.

His 2010 numbers are better than most would expect, as he hit .276/.331/.395 in 69 games. He played very sparingly at times, though, and it's tough to have confidence in Casilla as the starting second baseman heading into 2011 when he's been terribly inconsistent both offensively and defensively. Casilla does add speed to the lineup, and unlike Denard Span, Casilla is a fantastic base-stealer. He's stolen 35 of 39 bases in his career, and if he was able to put together a full season with his numbers last year he'd be a very solid starter in the league. Unfortunately, his past
would seem to suggest he's simply a decent utility player at this point in his career, and that's a pretty valuable spot to have on the Twins because if nothing else it would hopefully keep Matt Tolbert from ever seeing Target Field's home dugout again.

My original hope for second base was that Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima would be the Twins top target. His Japanese team was expected to post him* and the posting fee was projected to be under $5MM. So if the Twins had decided to target Nakajima, they likely could have won the bidding for $5MM and then signed him to a three or four year contract for about $3MM a year. Where am I getting these estimates? In 2007 the Rays won the 'posting' of Akinori Iwamura for $4.5MM, and then signed him to a three-year, $7.7MM contract. Iwamura was never a star after coming over from Japan, but he was an elite player in the Japanese league, and he hit 32 home runs in his final season in Japan. His career high was 44. The power disappeared when he arrived in the big leagues, but his numbers were still solid prior to this season when he seemed to simply fall off the map physically.

*Basically that means they'd sell his rights to a team in the MLB, who would then have exclusive negotiating rights, like Dice-K and the Red Sox a few years ago, but the posting fee wouldn't have been anywhere close to Dice K's $53MM or whatever it was.

Nakajima didn't show the same power that Iwamura showed in Japan, but his batting average was slightly better, and he still managed 20+ home runs over the last three years. He also has above-average speed and he drew 50+ walks a year during the same time period, so his projections would seem to be what the Twins are foolishly hoping to get from Alexi Casilla. Nakajima, though, isn't being posted by his Japanese team and so my hopes of him being a Twin for the 2011 season are officially impossible.

So since Casilla isn't likely to be the answer for the 2011 season, tomorrow I'll take a look at the possible free agent targets and the players who may be available via trade. I haven't looked into either too extensively yet, but my guess is the list is likely to be rather weak. It's possible Casilla might be the best option by default, but we'll see about that. For now, I'll just say there's simply no reason a team with an expected payroll over $100MM should be starting Alexi Casilla at any position.


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