Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Who is Alexi Casilla?

Casilla hits a walk-off single in the Twins' play-in game against Detroit in 2009
Acquired from the Angels for left-handed reliever J.C. Romero after the 2005 season, Casilla has spent his career with the Twins bouncing between starter and utility man.  Rated on the cusp of the top 20 Twins prospects at the time of his acquisition, Casilla put together a very strong year between High Single-A and Double-A and even received a September call-up to the big league club.  He started exactly one game, though, and had a total of six plate appearances over the entire month.  His success in the minors was enough for John Sickels to call him "a future Luis Castillo" and to bump him up to #9 among Twins prospects before the 2007 season.  The comparison seemed apt, as Casilla was a high-average, little-power second baseman who had just stolen 50 bases in his most recent minor league season--not to mention the similar last name.

Casilla arrived with the Twins very early in the 2007 season, but struggled to the tune of a .506 OPS over 45 plate appearances before being sent back to AAA at the end of April.  His numbers at that level were less than spectacular, but good enough to convince the Twins that starting second baseman Luis Castillo was expendable.  At the trade deadline he was dealt to the Mets and Casilla replaced him as the Twins' everyday second baseman.  The transition was not smooth, however, as Casilla played only very marginally better than he had in his April stint with Minnesota and found himself coming off the bench for a good portion of September.

This was just the beginning of the frustrations that the Twins organization and fans alike would feel with Casilla.  Seemingly gifted with plenty of talent, Casilla didn't always seem to be in the game.  Defensively he had the ability but mental mistakes doomed him time after time.  He found his way into Ron Gardenhire's doghouse many times over the next few seasons but continued to get chances because the Twins lacked any better options.

And at points he did take advantage of his opportunities, but never long enough to truly gain the trust of Gardenhire and the Twins organization.  Called up in mid-May of the 2008 season, for instance, Casilla went on a hot streak that saw him sustain a .327 batting average and .835 OPS in 180 plate appearances through July 1st.  Although that hot start made his end-of-season numbers look halfway decent, the rest of the season was a struggle, including a hand injury that forced him out of action for close to a month.

Just as he had gotten fans' hopes up that he would live up to his talent, Casilla cobbled together a dismal season along the lines of 2007.  He made two different trips to AAA but found himself on the roster at the end of the season.  That afforded him the opportunity to play in the Twins' play-in game with Detroit.  He did not start, for obvious reasons, but did pinch run for Brendan Harris in the tenth inning.  Only for that reason was he batting in the twelfth inning of a tie game with runners on first and second.  Casilla came up with his crowning achievement as a Twin, a walk-off single to left field that scored Carlos Gomez and won the 2009 AL Central title for Minnesota.  As his own personal reward, that hit lifted his batting average over the Mendoza Line for the season, sparing him the ignominy of a sub-.200 average.

The next two seasons saw improved hitting from Casilla, and his defense continues to pass the eye test.  As long as he can avoid the mental lapses that plagued him early in his career and hit decently, as opposed to abysmally, Casilla has a chance to produce some solid seasons in a Twins uniform.

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