Twins firm up roster of position players, opting for Casilla for final bench spot

Nothing is official yet, but the Twins basically finalized the position-player portion of their roster over the weekend by optioning Matt Tolbert to Triple-A and announcing that Jacque Jones will also begin the year in Rochester. Tolbert and Jones were both competing with Alexi Casilla for the final bench spot, but Casilla had a big advantage in that he’s out of minor-league options and would have to pass through waivers unclaimed before going to the minors.

I’ve all but given up on Casilla developing into an impact player. He’ll turn 26 in June, doesn’t have a great glove and has hit just .244/.301/.314 in 903 plate appearances in the majors along with .278/.352/.350 in 703 plate appearances at Triple-A. Yes, he had a very nice half-season for the Twins in 2008, but he’s too old to be a prospect, doesn’t bring a ton to the table defensively and has now been an awful hitter for the past 1,600 plate appearances.

With that said, choosing to keep Casilla around as a utility man, rather than risk losing him for nothing on waivers, makes sense when the alternative is a similarly flawed non-prospect with a minor-league option remaining in Tolbert. Barring injury, the last man on the bench will rarely see the field anyway, so this way the Twins keep both guys in the organization while delaying an inevitable decision on Casilla’s future.

Jones actually outperformed Casilla and Tolbert during spring training, but decisions shouldn’t be based on a dozen exhibition games against inconsistent levels of competition, and he hasn’t been a productive big-league hitter since 2007. Beyond that, he isn’t on the 40-man roster, so the Twins would’ve had to dump someone like Casilla to create a spot for him. Instead, they’ll stash Jones at Triple-A and see if he plays well enough to be a potential in-season call-up.

Barring a last-minute change, here are the Opening Day position players:

STARTERS BENCH
C Joe Mauer C Drew Butera
1B Justin Morneau IF Brendan Harris
2B Orlando Hudson IF Alexi Casilla
SS J.J. Hardy DH Jim Thome
3B Nick Punto  
LF Delmon Young DISABLED LIST
CF Denard Span C Jose Morales
RF Michael Cuddyer  
DH Jason Kubel  

The combination of a 12-man pitching staff and Jim Thome‘s inability to serve as more than an emergency first baseman defensively already limited the Twins to essentially a 3.5-man bench. Compounding that issue even further is Jose Morales starting the season on the disabled list and the final spot going to Casilla, rather than an outfielder. However, while that’s certainly far from an ideal setup, it shouldn’t hurt the Twins much in the short term.

Drew Butera will have an argument for being the majors’ worst

hitter, but Morales is aiming to return by the end of April, and in the meantime he hopefully won’t be called on for more than one or two starts a week. On days when Thome starts at DH, the Twins will have an outfielder on the bench and presumably Casilla, Nick Punto or Michael Cuddyer can handle center field for a few innings if necessary. Plus, beyond Punto, the Twins won’t do much pinch-hitting anyway.

Sure, a healthy Morales would be preferable to Butera and an experienced outfielder would be more useful than Casilla, but ultimately Thome and Brendan Harris will take care of whatever mixing and matching Ron Gardenhire figures to do with the lineup. It doesn’t make sense to rush Wilson Ramos‘ development just so he can back up Joe Mauer for a couple of weeks, and it doesn’t make sense to ditch Casilla before getting further proof that Jones isn’t washed-up.

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