For the second straight offseason the Twins have completely overhauled their middle infield and when the 2011 season begins the Twins could potentially have three new opening day starters than last season.
For opening day 2010 the Twins started Nick Punto at third base, J.J. Hardy at shortstop and Orlando Hudson at second base. As of right now, it appears unlikely that any of those three will be donning a Twins uniform next season.
With Hardy being traded, along with Brendan Harris, and Hudson very likely to leave via free agency the once highly anticipated tandem got the short end of the stick in Minnesota. Punto is also a free agent and apparently has drawn interest from the Indians.
At least on paper the Twins had their best infield in years after acquiring Hardy and Hudson last offseason. And the Twins haven’t had a good double play combo in recent memory so why give up and overhaul after only one season?
Well, Hardy had a pretty rough first season for the Twins in 2010, mostly due to some nagging injuries and his inability to hit home runs. The Twins signed him to hit the long ball and he never put it together last season. He is also due some big pay days in the near future which he might not be worth.
Hudson only signed a one-year contract last season and I don’t believe anyone in the Twins brass saw him as more than a one year rental. But, he had a great season in 2010 and it’s a bit surprising that the Twins didn’t at least attempt to retain his services. After putting up a solid season maybe his asking price was out of the Twins budget.
Instead the Twins chose to invest that money into speedy 26 year-old Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka. It also gave them a little financial flexibility in dealing with free-agents Carl Pavano and Jim Thome.
The Twins put in a $5 million dollar bid and won negotiating rights with Nishioka last month. The team wants to sign him right away and there is now a very realistic chance that he will be either the Twins starting second baseman or shortstop in 2011. Early signs point ot him playing second.
Last season, Nishioka led Japan’s Pacific League with a .346 average while playing for the Chiba Lotte Marines. He has 166 stolen bases over his last six seasons. He scored 121 runs last season in 144 games and has found a little bit of a power stroke in recent seasons, averaging 12 over his past three seasons.
If Hudson does in fact depart, it appears that Alexi Casilla would then be in line to win a starting job. He looked good at times last season while filling in for Hardy and Hudson when they were out with injuries. It’s not certain whether Nishioka will play shortstop or second for the Twins, but it appears in all likelihood that Casilla will have every chance to win one of the jobs.
On the negative side, both Casilla and Nishioka have had their fair share on injury proneness, so it would be in the team’s best interest to bring in another able middle infielder this offseason.
Compounding the matter, the Twins farm system offers little help for infield depth.
Either way the Twins infield will look very different next season with Justin Morneau back at first base after missing the second half of last season, Danny Valencia beginning his first full season as the Twins starting third baseman, Nishioka at second base and Casilla at shortstop.
Nishioka and Casilla add speed, which was missing last season, but neither has played a full season as a starter in the big leagues, so there are some question marks. Hudson and Hardy were also great defensively so we’ll see how much the Twins miss that when the season gets underway.