Spring Training 2011 Question Of The Day: Minnesota Twins

SARASOTA, FL - MARCH 03: Infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka #1 of the Minnesota Twins stretches just before the Grapefruit League Spring Training Game against the Baltimore Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium on March 3, 2011 in Sarasota, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

All eyes are on Minnesota's Justin Morneau, still not completely recovered from the concussion he suffered eight months ago. But if Morneau comes back strong, attention will shift to the middle of the Twins infield, where Alexi Casilla and Tsuyoshi Nishioka are being asked to do things they've never done before.

There are questions surrounding all 30 MLB teams during Spring Training, and Rob Neyer intends to answer them with his 30-part Question of the Day series. Today, he takes a look at the Minnesota Twins.

At this moment, you probably already know the two biggest questions facing the Minnesota Twins ...

1. Will Justin Morneau recover from his concussion in time for Opening Day?

and

2. Are the Twins really serious about trading Francisco Liriano, their best pitcher?

Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is Reply hazy, try again later.

If Morneau's healthy and Liriano's pitching, the American League Central is theirs to lose. Otherwise it's a three-team race. But Morneau still hasn't been cleared for game action and the Twins still seem displeased with Liriano's winter conditioning.

I think a more interesting (if less critical) question is tied to the Twins' revamped middle infield.

Last season, Orlando Hudson manned second base, J.J. Hardy played shortstop when physically able, and Alex Casilla saw limited action at both positions.

This season, Hudson and Hardy are gone. Casilla's back and slated for full-time duties at shortstop, with Japanese newcomer Tsuyoshi Nishioka taking over at second. Which seems questionable (to say the least) considering that Casilla's never presented well as a shortstop and Nishioka has played shortstop for the Chiba Lotte Marines since 2006 and won two Golden Gloves there.

Leaving aside the actual positions -- a swap at some point this spring isn't out of the question -- there are other, more basic questions regarding the wisdom of counting on Casilla and Nishioka.

Most obviously, Casilla has been incredibly erratic since arriving in the majors. In 2007, he didn't it at all. In 2008, he hit well enough for a middle infielder. In 2009, he didn't hit at all. In 2010, he hit well enough for a middle infielder. Throughout, he's never played well enough to earn an every-day job for long, and it's supposed that this is Casilla's last chance, considering his history and his contract status.

The real problem is that if Casilla just settles down and pegs his career percentages -- .249/.306/.327 -- he's not good enough to play unless he's playing Gold Glove defense ... and while Casilla really hasn't played enough shortstop with the Twins to tell us much, his performance at second base is hardly encouraging.

Essentially, the Twins seem to be expecting Casilla to hit as well as he did last season and play shortstop better than he's ever played second base. Which seems a tall order.

Meanwhile, who knows about Nishioka? The Twins are justifiably acclaimed for their scouting acumen, but they've no track record with Japanese players and the overall track record with Japanese players is spotty. Also, this Japanese player has spent much of his career battling a dizzying variety of injuries, with 2010 basically the first season in which he avoided the injury bug.

The Twins' backup plan(s)? Onetime first-round draft choice Trevor Plouffe, who sports a .303 on-base percentage in three Triple-A seasons; and Aussie Luke Hughes, who can hit some but at 5'11" and 200-some pounds seems quite ill-suited for the middle of the diamond.

Again, if Morneau and Liriano are doing their things for six months, maybe it won't matter who's turning the double plays. But if one of those fellows hits a snag, it might matter quite a lot. And the Twins, who usually seem to know what they're doing, are taking a fairly big gamble with the most important chunk of the diamond.

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